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The Free Zone: Should SOPA Be Stopped?

Column By Richard Aihoshi on January 17, 2012

Later this week, a committee of the US Congress will hold a hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act, a piece of legislation that seeks to provide protection against copyright infringement conducted via the Internet.  Its scope includes games, but is far broader, also encompassing movies, music, literature, etc.

I’ll state clearly right up front that I believe curbing online piracy is a worthy aim. That said, the more I learn about this act and its sister in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, the more uneasy I feel about the proposed mechanism.  For me, it brings up the classic quandary of whether the ends justify the means and how much collateral damage is acceptable.  What’s more, it’s not a simple black and white situation since there’s no way of knowing if the implementation will be precise and surgical, heavy-handed in the extreme or somewhere in between.

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For what it’s worth, a number of game companies have demonstrated they share my concern by declaring publicly that they oppose SOPA.  Among the familiar names to this site’s readers are Red 5, Trion Worlds, 38 Studios and Riot Games.  In this regard, a curious situation exists with respect to the Entertainment Software Association, which is basically a trade lobby group mainly comprised of major publishers.  To the best of my knowledge, this organization has always positioned itself as representing the entire US game industry.  Yet it lists a mere 32 members, albeit they represent a huge proportion in terms of dollar volume.  A number have significant MMOG connections, such as 38, EA, Nexon, Nival, Perfect World, SOE, Square Enix, THQ, Trion and Warner Bros. Notable by its absence… Activision Blizzard. 

Last week, the ESA announced its support for SOPA.  I’m concerned that this action was more about playing the political game than about figuring out what can reasonably be done to address the issue at hand.  According to various reports, at least several of its members are either opposed to or not fully on board with this position.  Given the internal differences of opinion, and the obvious fact the organization doesn’t speak for the vast majority of game companies since they don’t belong, should it be speaking as if it were the true voice of the industry on this matter, or as if there’s consensus?

Furthermore, the ESA is almost entirely made up of publishers.  For me, this begs the question as to how well it represents the rights of gamers, if at all.  At this point, you may be thinking there’s little or no reason for you to care if you don’t pirate games.  My main reason for concern about both SOPA and PIPA is that they are more than vague enough to affect the free and open way in which the Internet operates.

SOPA would allow the Department of Justice to close down websites that it decides are dedicated to copyright infringement.  Regrettably, it takes a first step down the proverbial slippery slope by including those deemed to have only limited other purpose or use while not clearly defining how such determinations will be made.  The DoJ would also be able to force search engines, social networking sites et al to block access to any targeted site.

Theoretically, the act could be used to force any sites with user-generated content, even including forums, to change how they operate.  As such, it has the potential to affect the entire community element of the MMOG experience.  And if any owners feel they have been selected unfairly?  Sadly, it becomes a question of whether it’s worth the expense of fighting the US government in court, even assuming they can afford to do so, which I’m sure only a small minority can.

What’s even more unfortunate is that SOPA simply won’t live up to its name.  It won’t stop online piracy.  Not a chance.  It’s even questionable how much of an impact it will have.  For one thing, my understanding is that those who utilize peer to peer methods (can you say torrents?) will be minimally inconvenienced if at all.

Does the government understand this?  And how about the ESA, which supposedly speaks for the game industry?  As I said earlier, I support the goal that SOPA is trying to address.  However, as an editor and writer whom the Internet has enabled to make a living out of my love of games for a decade and a half, during which time I have created and managed many millions of words of copyrighted material, the vast majority for US-based sites although I’m Canadian, I believe the proposed legislation is deeply flawed.

Some have compared it to using a nuke to kill a nest of cockroaches.  I won’t go that far, but it does seem over-zealous, especially considering many of the insects won’t even be harmed.  I join those who hope it will not pass.  I want to believe it’s possible to come up with something a lot better. 

Fortunately, the end of last week brought reason to think this might actually happen.  Although it’s under three advisors’ names rather than President Obama’s, the White House released an official response to anti-SOPA petitions on Whitehouse.gov that includes this statement:

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

As of today, the committee meeting mentioned earlier has reportedly been postponed, and the vote on SOPA that had been expected late this month will apparently not take place.  However, it’s important to note a few things.  One is that the bill isn’t dead, just no longer moving forward on the House floor.

Given how politics work, it still seems reasonable to think it will re-surface in a form that is modified just enough so those behind it feel the volume of objections will decline sufficiently for it to pass. It would be naïve to think the entertainment industry interests that have spent millions of dollars lobbying and in campaign contributions to bring SOPA as far as it has come will suddenly decide to adopt a mindset that puts a lot more weight on the rights and freedoms of individual users, small companies et al.  They’re far more likely to look toward something that’s watered down as little as possible.

And for the record, my opinions are, as always, solely and completely my own.

Addendum: Literally minutes before publication time and long after my normal deadline, I received a press release announcing that Red 5 has launched a non-profit organization, the League for Gamers, described as "a gathering place for gamers, developers and industry supporters who want to stand against legislation that is detrimental to the games industry." The company has also pledged $50,000 to help the LFG to become an alternative voice to the ESA.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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