If you haven’t heard the recent controversy over the proposed U.S. legislation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or its Senate equivalent, the Protect IP Act, you haven’t been listening. Even though this legislation proposes to modify U.S. laws, it has a potentially broad impact on websites around the world, thanks to the highly interconnected network we appropriately call the Internet.

In an attempt to subvert illegal copying of copyrighted material, these bills go further than the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). For instance, they require ISPs to block access to sites that subvert U.S. copyright (or whose purpose is to enable copyright subversion). Search engines would also be required to suppress results for those sites. Payment processors like PayPal would be required to block its transactions. Advertising services like Google AdSense would have to suppress ads for these sites. Perhaps most alarming of all, each of these services would be required to accept “good faith” complaints and take action before the issuance of any court order. That action could cost a web-based organization significant losses in revenue and legal fees before it manages to reverse such a blackout.

Fortunately, it appears that SOPA in its present form will not even come to a vote. The White House published a response to two online anti-SOPA petitions which acknowledges the dangers to freedom and Internet security inherent in that legislation. However, that same response also states, “the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders,” and Congress is working to modify the legislation to make it a pill just small enough for the American people to be willing to swallow. SOPA/PIPA isn’t dead, it only sleeps.

How does all this affect consultants? If you or your clients publish or host Internet content of any kind, you could get scrubbed with SOPA.

First and perhaps most serious of all, if you provide any content that your clients publish on the web, a SOPA takedown could cause big trouble for your relationship with your client. Most consulting contracts include language that either guarantees that all work produced is original, or that it is free of license and copyright restrictions. If someone fingers your content as a violation of copyright, your client’s entire site could go dark. If the takedown sticks, then your client could consider you in violation of those contract provisions. Even if they manage to fight it and get back online, they’re not going to look favorably on the trouble you’ve caused them. Even if they acknowledge that it wasn’t your fault at all, they’ll have to wonder whether you couldn’t have erred on the side of safety and avoided anything even remotely questionable.

Let’s suppose that your client gets taken down, but it has nothing to do with your work for them. They could still go out of business, or at least run into deep financial trouble, as a result. This could spell the end of your engagement, through no fault of your own.

Finally, the website for your own business could also face a takedown. Now, you might say, “my website doesn’t drive much business. It’s just an Internet business card.” Remember, though, that in SOPA’s current provisions, lookups for your domain would go dark. That means no email if you receive it through your own domain, nor any other Internet transactions that rely on your domain.

Another objection you might raise: “I don’t post much content on my site, and it’s all clear of violations.” Are you sure that nothing you posted is similar enough to anything out there that a copyright holder wouldn’t issue a pre-emptive strike? Images and videos are hard enough to clear, but how about the written word that just happens to be similar to something someone else wrote? Have you ever linked to a site that might be an offender, even for other unrelated content? Do you allow comments? Have you checked all of their content and every thing they link to, as well?

In the Always Look on the Bright Side of Life department, these new rules could also bring consulting opportunities to prey upon your clients’ misfortunes. Reviewing content and policies to ensure or restore compliance with copyright restrictions would become more urgent. For sites that must block content, the technical chops to do that effectively could make some big bucks. The question is: would it pay for your loss of sleep?

As an author of online content, I don’t like it when sites copy what I’ve written without attribution. It feels like a violation. When it occurs with content I’ve written for TechRepublic, I notify my editor. But I don’t think that this piracy has ever cost me a dime, and I’d be really surprised to learn that it cost TechRepublic any significant loss either. When copiers provide attribution, it probably even helps. However readers find content online originally, some of them will start to notice when the same source provides consistently reliable content, and they’ll go to that source. The rip-offs aren’t generally smart enough to separate the good from the bad. Often they’re just automated web scrapers. They’re not going to build a loyal readership.

Even if copyright violators do sometimes cost revenue to content providers, additional laws will not improve the situation. Provisions like those in SOPA/PIPA would probably end up costing content publishers more to defend their own content than they could possibly save in enabling the prosecution of true offenders. The only people who win are the lawyers on both sides.

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