Art law USA

Online piracy bill has free speech supporters up in arms

Artists who use others’ work could be fined or have their websites shut down

House Committee members John Conyers (left) and Lamar Smith

washington, dc. A bill being considered by a House of Representatives committee last month could divide the art world into two camps: those who want to protect their creations from being used online and those who like to use the work of others. The legislation, intended to stop piracy on the web, is meeting strong opposition: Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales, has proposed a blackout on their site. The measure would impose criminal fines and allow the US government and individuals to shut down websites for alleged infringement. Critics say the steps would restrain free speech and cause service providers to filter out content they were unsure of.

Theodore Feder, the president of the Artists Rights Society in New York, says that it backs the bill, saying: “It will help to curtail online piracy, which adversely affects the interests of our artist members.” He says that the law would help “remedy some of the weaknesses” of copyright protection in the digital age.

Music and film producers want the bill to be passed. Online giants like Google, Twitter and Yahoo are opposed and “techies” devoted to a free internet are up in arms.

The bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), introduced by Republican representative Lamar Smith, is designed to fight websites identified as dedicated to copyright infringement. If passed, the attorney general could require US internet providers to deny access to such sites and could require advertisers and payment services, such as Paypal, to stop doing business with them. If the service provider acts reasonably to comply with the order, or voluntarily stops business with a suspected site, it would be immune from liability. The bill also makes it a crime to distribute or reproduce electronically a copyrighted work with a value over $1,000.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of law at Harvard, says that Sopa has “grave implications for publishers and creative artists. It will diminish the availability of art images on the web” and “dramatically chill protected speech”.

“Artists who want to make fair use of another artist’s work, as part of a work posted online, could be threatened,” says Art Brodsky, the communications director for Public Knowledge, a Washington, DC-based organisation that supports digital rights. “Whether it’s an image or a film clip, the hosting site could have its financial support cut off, or even be subject to closure.”

The bill could affect artists who don’t infringe copyright because if an artist’s work is on a site “that also hosts or links to allegedly infringing work, that whole site may become essentially invisible”, says Julie Samuels, a lawyer at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. She says that sites that host user-generated content, like the video site YouTube or the arts and craft marketplace Etsy, “won’t be able to survive”.

Robert Panzer, the executive director of the Visual Artists Gallery Association in New York, which advises artists on copyright, says that while his organisation supports “any legislation that gives new tools to rights holders”, Sopa primarily addresses corporate needs. He says Congress should create a small claims copyright court, to let creators pursue the “thousands of infringements on the web” that are now “too costly to pursue”.

In November, Google, Twitter, Mozilla and other internet companies wrote to Congress asking it to consider “more targeted ways” to combat rogue websites. A letter signed by a founder of the image sharing site Flickr says that Sopa would suppress innovation. The law would empower the US government “to censor the web using techniques similar to those used by China”, the letter says.

A review of the bill by the House Judiciary Committee was adjourned on 16 December, and was due to resume on 21 December as we went to press.

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