On Friday, Jan. 20, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate Majority Leader, postponed the Senate vote on the Protect I.P. Act, also known as PIPA. Shortly after, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), delayed the vote on the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Both votes were originally scheduled for today.
The bills would have given the Department of Justice power to order websites to remove links that direct to foreign websites with pirated American material. Existing copyright laws already give the department power to take down websites with U.S. servers and domains that have pirated material, such as Megaupload.
Although the bills were mainly intended to attack foreign websites, the vague wording of the bill prompted fears of censorship.
“Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet,” Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia, said in a statement. “If passed, this legislation will harm the free and open Internet and bring out new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States.”
However, lawmakers and websites alike concede that it is important to stop the foreign piracy that robs American music and filmmakers of royalties.
“Members of Congress are trying to do the right thing by going after pirates and counterfeiters, but SOPA and PIPA are the wrong way to do it,” Google said in a statement on Jan. 18.
Wayne More, an associate professor of political science with a concentration in constitutional law, also expressed misgivings.
“Even the opponents of the bill concede that it’s legitimate to try and create a mechanism to prevent illegitimate encroachment on rights,” he said. “The concern here is that these two bills may create mechanisms that limit legitimate expressions of ideas. And complicating that, what’s protected and what’s not protected isn’t always clear, especially at the margins.”
But supporters argue the bills are a necessary step to stop intellectual property theft.
“Our industry not only fully supports free expression, (but) our livelihood is built upon a vibrant First Amendment — it is the foundation of our industry, and we would never support any legislation that would limit this fundamental American right,” said Michael O’Leary, a senior executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America, in a statement on Jan. 14.
“As had been made clear throughout the legislative consideration of SOPA and the PROTECT-IP Act, neither of these bills implicate free expression, but focus solely on illegal conduct, which is not free speech.”
The decisions to postpone voting came after a momentous push by grassroots citizens and major websites to thwart the bills.
Wikipedia and other websites “blacked out” in protest to the bills on Jan. 18. Other Internet giants, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, issued statements encouraging users to contact their senators and congressmen, urging them to stop the bill.
In favor of the bill was the Copyright Alliance, which includes CBS, Burberry, Walt Disney Studios, Viacom, NBCUniversal, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America.
Although the political climate was not ripe for the two bills, Reid emphasized the need for lawmakers to establish intellectual property laws to protect Americans.
“Counterfeiting and piracy cost the American economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year, with the movie industry alone supporting over 2.2 million jobs,” Reid said in a statement on Jan. 20.
“We must take action to stop these illegal practices. We live in a country where people rightfully expect to be fairly compensated for a day’s work, whether that person is a miner in the high desert of Nevada, an independent band in New York City, or a union worker on the back lots of a California movie studio.”
Kelsey Jo Starr contributed to this report.