The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is pending legislation introduced in October 2011 to the United States House of Representatives by Lamar Smith (R-TX). Essentially, the bill would provide U.S. law enforcement to have a far-reaching heavy hand in the attempt to stop online trafficking of copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Also, a similar bill known as Protect IP Act (PIPA) was introduced into the United States Senate and seeks to control access to websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods, particularly those registered outside the U.S. Although each bill contains the common thread of curbing access to pirated content on the internet, it is SOPA that has received much of the attention.

Proponents contend the legislation would protect intellectual property markets. Currently, there are undisputed flaws in copyright law that allows individuals to pirate protected work, and realize a profit. For example, an individual can purchase a pay-per-view fight and then stream the fight from their television onto their computer, then across the world vis-à-vis a particular URL. Located on the associated webpage, the individual committing piracy can then sell ad space to gain a profit on a product that is not rightfully their own.

Opponents, on the other hand, claim SOPA threatens free speech and innovation by censoring or shutting down websites upon the occurrence of uncontrolled infringement. For example, if a search engine provides a link to a webpage and, unknown to the search engine providers, such a webpage contains infringing content, the search engine could then face punishment similar to the actual site carrying the infringing content. Alternative bills have been introduced in an effort to combat the possibility of SOPA being enacted, but for now, SOPA has been garnering all of the attention.

As SOPA came to the forefront of our daily newspapers and became a hot topic in mainstream media, companies started publicly asserting their support for SOPA, while seemingly an equal amount have stated their opposition.  How companies have been lining up on either side of the battle field has been quite interesting. In the wake of the uproar surrounding SOPA, and the subsequent loss of Congressional backing, the House Judiciary Committee responsible for the “mark-up” of the bill “postponed” SOPA and the similarly related Protect IP Act (PIPA) also was tabled until the dust settles at a later date.

Not surprisingly, the UFC has offered its public support of SOPA. The UFC has a long history of perceiving a situation and acting accordingly with its financial accounts in mind. And who is to blame the organization? The UFC is in the business of making money, and pay-per-view, television broadcasts, internet broadcast, etc., all contribute to the gaudy bottom line of the UFC.

The UFC has grown at an incredible rate in the last ten years and much of its success has been attributed to the selling of pay-per-view and the promotion’s endeavor into the reality TV market with The Ultimate Fighter series.  When the UFC was in the infant stages of its resurgence to the mainstream, the technology, or at least the awareness thereof, did not threaten the UFC’s profits realized by way of pay-per-view and television broadcasts.

Now, however, the rapid development of technology has created a conundrum for copyright law that is rearing its ugly head in all professional sports. Sport leagues and promoters alike are having their revenues purged by fans that take a broadcast and disseminate it across the world to countless end-users. This dynamic has created a plethora of issues that cannot be contained within the four corners of this article. However, staying myopically focused allows us to examine and validate the UFC’s position while at the same time giving credence to the opponents of SOPA and PIPA, because of the significant changes that would occur if the bill were to be passed.

In the United States, the dissemination of copyrighted materials can be considered a civil or criminal act, punishable by fine or imprisonment.  One may think that copyright infringement is a harmless act, but the piracy of copyrighted materials has grown to an international phenomenon and is a billion-dollar industry. In 1998, the United States passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which provides an avenue for Intellectual Property owners to remedy acts of infringement. Unfortunately, the extent of the law does not go beyond our domestic borders.

Much of the infringement that is taking place is located on servers in countries abroad. For example, The Pirate Bay, a website that makes available music, movies and television shows, has servers located in Sweden, which creates convoluted issues of legal recourse and ultimately provides a veil of protection for the website operators. Thus, the DMCA with respect to the streaming of online content such as an UFC event seems to be a lion with no teeth.

Currently, with SOPA and PIPA being placed on procedural hold, in part due to the public uproar, there have been alternative approaches that are gaining traction. Most notably, Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), which seeks to stop transfers of money to foreign websites whose primary purpose is piracy or counterfeiting.

At the end of the day, it seems inevitable that some form of an online piracy bill, complete with a catchy acronym, will be heard in the United States Congress and eventually passed.  As it currently stands, there are proposals in the form of SOPA, PIPA, OPEN and The Free Information Act.

Next week, we will discuss the overall objective of each proposal and provide a compare and contrast on how each bill would affect MMA, and specifically the UFC and the rabid fans eagerly awaiting the events.

Photo: SOPA protester (AFP)

This piece was authored by Chase Buzzell. You can find Chase via his LinkedIn Profile.

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