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Technology: Entrepreneurs blast the Protect IP Act

September 8, 2011 |  2:30 am

Illegal downloads
The Protect IP Act, an entertainment industry-backed bill to combat online piracy, has drawn fire from tech advocacy groups, law professors and noteworthy engineers who worry about its effects on the Internet ecosystem. Now, more than 100 tech entrepreneurs and executives are adding their voices to the opposition, sending a letter to members of Congress warning about the threat the bill poses to startups, innovation and economic growth.

The signatories include such notables as Evan Williams, former chief executive of Twitter and founder of Blogger; Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn; Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga; Jeff Pulver, founder of Vonage; and Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster and Socializr. Although many of the other names and company affiliations will no doubt be lost on the residents of Washington, D.C., their cumulative accomplishments should at least earn their concerns a hearing. According to the letter, the 130 executives listed have "created over 50,000 jobs directly through our companies and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more through the technologies we invented, funded, brought to market and made mainstream."

The bill (S 968) would give the Justice Department and copyright holders new tools to combat sites that are "dedicated to infringing activities," including the ability to seek court orders seizing the sites' domain names and requiring search engines, payment processing companies and advertising networks to blackball them. Supporters say the measure would help cut off the financial lifeblood of piracy hotbeds, particularly foreign sites that have been beyond the reach of U.S. law.

The entrepreneurs and executives said they aren't opposed to that goal but don't believe S 968 would achieve it. 

"While the bill will create uncertainty for many legitimate businesses and in turn undermine innovation and creativity on those services, the dedicated pirates who use and operate 'rogue' sites will simply migrate to platforms that conceal their activities," they wrote.

One of the group's main concerns is the potential burden on startups. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 has no shortage of detractors in the tech industry, but the letter notes that it gave legitimate companies a clear way to avoid behind held liable for infringements by their users. The Protect IP Act includes no such provision:

PIPA would put new burdens and possible liability on independent third parties, including payment processors, advertising firms, information location tools and others. The definitions here are incredibly vague, and many companies signed below could fall under the broad definitions of "information location tools," meaning costly changes to their infrastructure, including how we remain in compliance with blocking orders on an ever-changing Internet.

Separately, including a private right of action means that any rights holder can tie up a service provider in costly legal action, even if it eventually turns out to not be valid. Given the broad definitions used above for sites 'supporting piracy,' it's not difficult to predict that plenty of legitimate startups may end up having to spend time, money and resources to deal with such actions.

Another concern is that the measure's definition of "dedicated to infringing activity" is vague and ripe for abuse, especially by copyright holders armed with a new power to sue:

Legitimate sites with legitimate uses can also in many cases be used for piracy. Historically, overzealous rights holders have tried to stop many legitimate technologies that disrupted their existing business models and facilitated some unauthorized activity. The following technologies were condemned at one point or another -- the gramophone (record player), the player piano, radio, television, the photocopier, cable TV, the VCR, the DVR, the mp3 player and video hosting platforms. Even though these technologies obviously survived, many individual businesses like DVR-maker ReplayTV and video platform Veoh were not so fortunate -- those companies went bankrupt due to litigation costs, and sold their remaining assets to foreign companies.

The letter closes with a direct response to the argument that the major entertainment companies have been making to Congress practically since the day Shawn Fanning released his Napster file-sharing software. The Internet and new technologies may be a problem for creators, the group writes, but they're also the solution:

Introducing this new regulatory weapon into the piracy arms race won't stop the arms race, but it will ensure there will be more collateral damage along the way. There are certainly challenges to succeeding as a content creator online, but the opportunities are far greater than the challenges, and the best way to address the latter is to create more of the former.

The measure is awaiting action in the Senate, having sailed through the Judiciary Committee (which is chaired by the bill's author, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont). House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has said he would introduce his own version of the measure this month. 

RELATED:

Policing the Internet

Anti-piracy enforcement vs. a function Internet

Seizing domain names without the Protect IP Act

Push to stop online piracy gets new boost from bipartisan group of senators

-- Jon Healey

Illustration: Richard Downs / For The Times


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