Why you and your congregation should oppose SOPA

Thanks for stopping by ReadTheSpirit today, Wednesday, January 18, 2012! The entire Internet is quirky today—full of dead ends and blacked out pages—as many Web giants we all use, including Wikipedia and Google, are “on strike” for a day to protest dangerous legislation working its way through Congress.

We are striking, too!
Our mid-week author interview, this week with best-selling author Bishop John Shelby Spong, will be delayed one day. Similarly, our daily OurValues series, our regular Holidays column, our Spiritual Wanderer blog and our Friendship and Faith series are all on strike today. No new stories will appear on Wednesday.
Fresh stories will return on Thursday.
Because we are a news magazine, covering important stories affecting religious life and values around the world, we are only publishing this analysis of the SOPA issue today.

The two acts before the U.S. Congress may sound great but actually would wreak havoc on many important Web resources—and might have dire effects on peaceful freedom movements around the world. The two pieces of legislation are known simply as the U.S. House’s SOPA and the U.S. Senate’s PIPA. They stand for Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act. They appear noble: Any serious media professionals, including all the writers and editors at readthespirit.com, want to protect copyrights and properly credit the work of other professionals.

But here is the dangerous flaw: This legislation is overkill. It’s basically a giant club that media moguls in places like Hollywood and Nashville want to swing against websites they claim are improperly using copyright content. And “claim” is enough, in this case. Court action always has been available in copyright cases, but the proposed legislation lets a mere “claim” shut down entire accused websites—or block off entire regions of the world.


WIKIPEDIA STAFF POSTED THIS EXPLANATION.Most of our readers are part of religious groups, nonprofit organizations and countless online groups that have noble spiritual motives. Imagine if some online robot documenting your website spotted a photograph or a bit of text or music—even if it was posted by a well-meaning but clumsy amateur in your group. If such a Web search turns up such a flaw—and a claim is filed against you or your group—then: BANG! Your entire website can be shut down.


Even if you think that copyright infringement deserves a tough response, this new legislation poses global problems of serious concern to most of our readers. For example, in our popular new Blessed Are the Peacemakers book and online efforts, global peace negotiator and author Dan Buttry is encouraging all of us to help nonviolent freedom movements. SOPA and PIPA target entire regions of the world where copyright infringement and piracy occur regularly. While knocking out piracy is a noble goal we share—imagine giving this big club to dictators clinging to power against the Arab Spring or other freedom movements. Or, consider all the American-supported, religious-freedom campaigns aimed at helping faithful men and women in countries like China. That’s a nation that would be targeted for Web blockades in this new legislation. We all could wind up dodging clubs and blackouts—in some cases based on claims made by brutal dictators who suddenly seem to be getting tough on copyright laws as a way to repress grassroots movements. In the waning days of Egypt’s dictatorship, unsuccessful attempts were made to black out the Internet. Imagine if SOPA and PIPA gave such brutal strongmen a seemingly noble way to go: BANG!


U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith violated the terms of SOPA on his own website by using the background photograph of a rural area to frame his home page. Smith’s webmaster never contacted or credited the photographer.You may ask: Why shouldn’t everyone just start living by copyright standards? In an ideal world, that might be a solution. But this problem of infringement—on giant and on small websites—is such a difficult challenge that the sponsor of SOPA, U.S. Rep. Lamar S. Smith (Republican of Texas), was exposed in a Forbes article as having violated SOPA rules himself in his own website. Someone built his website with a gorgeous rural photograph as the backdrop—a photo used without proper permission from the photographer.

Just imagine what might happen with your church’s, or your denomination’s or your nonprofit’s website if this kind of club is handed to media moguls. Imagine a member of your youth group proudly posting a YouTube video with a bit of copyright music on your church’s site? A colleague in ministry might post a helpful tip about a new hymn for worship and include a little audio clip. Some volunteer might build a great new website for your charitable group, and it turns out one photograph deep in the site is owned by Getty. BANG! It happened to Rep. Smith; it could happen to you.


At ReadTheSpirit, we are defenders of the Bill of Rights, especially freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of press. We also defend the principles of copyright—the right of creators to own their intellectual property. But we also believe in new forms of licensing that allow creators to widely share their work. The entire ReadTheSpirit website is produced under Creative Commons licensing. Basically, that means our writers, photographers and artists own our material, but we are formally offering to share our online stories widely with our readers. Creative Commons allows us—and Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons website that provides many of the photographs we publish—to specify how that content will be shared. We require, for example, that a link back to the readthespirit.com website accompany any sharing of our stories. See our Creative Commons logo at the bottom of our home page.


First, make yourself aware of these issues. Properly police your own websites and publications. Even if current versions of SOPA and PIPA are torpedoed, some new forms of tougher anti-piracy legislation are on the horizon. Penalties for violating intellectual property rights are likely to rise. Contact members of Congress. Let them know you are concerned.

We encourage sharing at ReadTheSpirit. Look for special sharing arrangements like ReadTheSpirit’s provisions through Creative Commons, which is linked at the bottom of our home page.


Wikipedia is “down” on January 18, 2012, but has an in-depth article on SOPA with lots of background information and links. There’s a separate article about the Protect IP ACT, called PIPA.

Legal expert Laurence H. Tribe made quite a stir by coming out in public opposition to SOPA and PIPA. Here is a story covering Tribe’s decision to go public with his opposition. You also can read Laurence H. Tribe’s entire analysis of the legislation.

On February 17, 2012, Forbes reported that U.S. Rep. Smith intends to keep chugging away on his legislation, no matter what happens this week. Interestingly enough, even though Forbes is a business-themed news publication, a number of Forbes writers seem clearly to oppose SOPA and PIPA.

Here’s an ABC News report by Ned Potter posted on January 17.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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