The Next Step in SOPA

There’s not a lot of hurry to get anti-piracy legislation back on track, but consumers will soon be getting a very real feel for Hollywood’s latest front in fighting online theft of movies, TV shows and music. As I point out in my latest piece for the print version of Variety, the rollout of Copyright Alerts begs the question of why this isn’t the path forward for some of the goals of the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Hollywood and its supporters are feeling something akin to a hangover following the sidelining of the Stop Online Piracy Act and a companion bill in the Senate.

It’s been just over a month since an Internet blackout called attention to the legislation, and an accompanying protest forced congressional leaders to put it on hold. Although emotions have been somewhat diffused, frustrated lobbyists and skittish lawmakers don’t seem in a hurry to jump back into the fray to try and craft a compromise.

The election year makes it even less likely that Congress will act on something if it appears the legislation could become a liability.

But that doesn’t mean that the problem of piracy will be off the radar of the average consumer. In fact, this spring, consumers will start to get a very clear message from the entertainment industry as it tries to curb online copyright infringement. Following a landmark agreement finalized last year with the studios and record labels, the country’s major Internet service providers, including AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon, will start sending out “copyright alerts” to users who illegally download copyrighted movies, music and TV shows. If users continue to access pirated content, they would face possible sanctions at a certain point that could include slower Internet speeds.

The agreement was reached last year without legislation — which begs the question of why at least some goals of the SOPA legislation couldn’t be achieved via a similar pact. The White House, which was critical of parts of the legislation, also said at the time that “this is not just a matter for legislation” and urged the sparring parties “to adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.”

But that’s easier said than done.

The agreement for “copyright alerts” took almost three years to complete, and the biggest challenge may be just getting parties to the table. Cary Sherman, chairman-CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said that while agreements for “best practices” to combat piracy are in place with payment processors, and in the works with advertisers, search engines “have essentially declined to participate in conversations.”

Sherman, who played a major role in crafting the agreement for the copyright alerts, said that they are an “indication that if you want to make progress, you can.”

“We would love for it to be a model,” he said.

Markham Erickson, executive director of the NetCoalition, the association of Internet firms that opposed the antipiracy bills, said, “Search engines have been at the table and have created solutions on their own.”

He expects discussions of some sort this year but said that a “significant lack of trust between Hollywood and Silicon Valley” has to be overcome. “There needs to be more conversations so we can understand better where they are coming from and they can understand where we are coming from,” he added.

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