If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past couple of months, then you’ve no doubt heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill, also known as House Bill 3261 or H.R. 3261, which was introduced in the House of Representatives on October 26, 2011. SOPA called for a crackdown on copyright infringement by restricting access to sites that host or facilitate the trading of pirated content.
SOPA, which was recently killed by sponsor and House Representative Lamar Smith, would have represented a fundamental change in the way the Internet works today and would have undermined all Software as a Service (SaaS)/cloud companies. If the bill had passed, it could have been a sign that additional countries could follow suit with their own legislation which would inevitably hurt businesses operating internationally and their ability to provide services in other countries.
The bill was written such that sites with user-generated content would have to police themselves for any copyright infringement or face substantial penalties, blacklists, etc. A literal interpretation of these laws could constrain or even cripple how people collaborate. SOPA would have reduced the strategic and competitive advantage American companies have developed because we are so used to using powerful social tools to share knowledge and empower knowledge workers. All of these activities could be affected if the government is allowed to blacklist some of the websites where this occurs.
At Socialtext, we’re very interested in this debate. We have a product (delivered as a SaaS service) that is targeted to workers in the Enterprise 2.0 space. Customers use our technology to interact and share socially across the enterprise, from marketing to customer support, engineering, research and more. We were the first company to deliver enterprise social software and are focused on delivering a SaaS platform that enables social collaboration, allowing employees to share knowledge with their colleagues and teams. Over the past decade, we have seen our clients’ employees share not only internal knowledge, documents and expertise, but also incorporate content from all over the web into these conversations. Just as on consumer social networks, sharing links and content from around the Web is often seen as critical for conversations, documentation, research, analysis and more, for workers today.
Many of our customers who run our software behind firewalls incorporate content from the Internet. Our customers range from a 50-person manufacturing company in the Midwestern United States to 120,000 educators in Australia. They use Socialtext software as the front end to their intranet. While passing of this legislation would have had an impact on our company and customers, we would have seen far less of an impact than companies such as Facebook, which would suddenly have had to monitor every upload on its site.
With the death of SOPA, it seems that we must now keep our eyes on the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act) which was recently introduced. According to Representative Darrell Issa, the new bill delivers stronger intellectual property rights while protecting the openness of the Internet. Senator Ron Wyden has also introduced the OPEN Act in the Senate. The OPEN Act would give oversight to the International Trade Commission (ITC) and only applies to websites that deliberately promote copyright violations. SOPA would have enabled content owners to take down an entire website even if just one page included infringing content.
So what is the difference between SOPA and the OPEN Act? Eric Markowitz of Inc. Magazine sums it up nicely by stating that “the primary difference between OPEN and SOPA is that the bill calls on the International Trade Commission — not the Justice Department — to fight online piracy. In other words, it has significantly less legal firepower and, unsurprisingly, SOPA's sponsor doesn't think OPEN is strong enough.”
What I find most interesting about the whole SOPA/OPEN Act debate is that most people see this as a web issue, when in reality, we’re dealing with a trade and commerce issue. The focus of the actual debate is how to protect products and brands. Unfortunately, this is lost because we all know that it’s sexier to turn this into a digital debate about movies and downloads when really it’s about protecting intellectual property.
The OPEN Act is a good start in that it focuses on the trade and commerce issue that I discussed before. But, the real problem is there are different types of foreign actors that we have to consider. First, there are countries that can help and will, like we saw with New Zealand and the MegaUpload case. Second, there are countries that can't help but would if they could. Finally, there are countries that don't want to help at all. Any proposed legislation should focus first on these different scenarios and would look different in each situation.
Obviously, the back and forth debate surrounding SOPA and the OPEN Act will not come to an end any time soon, but what do you think? Is the OPEN Act a good alternative? Let the next great debate begin.
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Eugene Lee is a seasoned leader and entrepreneur with a track record of founding, building, growing and selling transformational companies at the intersection of people, software and networks. He joined Socialtext as "CEO 2.0” and member of the Board of Directors in November 2007. After graduating from the MIT Sloan School of Business, Lee co-founded Beyond, Inc., the developer of the award-winning BeyondMail product, at age 27. He led Beyond from $5 million in revenue to $32 million in just 18 months and earned four patents in messaging, workflow and privacy technologies. Upon the company being acquired by Banyan, Lee was named General Manager of Messaging Business Unit. He also launched Switchboard.com, the leading white and yellow pages directory.
Lee was recruited by Cisco Systems as Vice President of Worldwide SMB Marketing, and then held the role of Vice President Marketing for Cisco's Internet Communications Software Group, and eventually Vice President of Worldwide Enterprise Marketing. From 2004 to 2007 Lee was at Adobe Systems as Vice President Product Marketing for the Intelligent Documents Business Unit and then as Vice President of Vertical and Solutions Marketing.
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