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Piracy bill low priority in Iowa

Partisans are passionate, but most voters focus on other issues

As today’s Iowa caucus stands to clarify the contours of the 2012 presidential race, one issue of utmost concern to the Hollywood lobby has earned only passing mention on the trail: pending anti-piracy legislation before Congress.

Hollywood studios and most showbiz guilds are gung-ho on passage of the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and a companion bill in the Senate. However, opponents are determined that these bills become nothing short of a litmus test.

As with much copyright legislation (which is often technical and complicated), the issue hasn’t raised enough concern to be brought up in any meaningful way at candidate townhall meetups, if it has been asked about at all.

But the partisans, both from the right and left, are passionate. A chorus of digital-rights groups and bloggers are working to stall the legislation. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Red State has vowed to “do everything in my power” to defeat Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a co-sponsor of the legislation.

“This battle is so important — and is one of those rare fights where the left and right are united against Congress — that I suggest the left and right unite and pledge to defeat in primaries every person named as a sponsor on H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act,” Erickson wrote.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has said she has “serious concerns” about the Senate legislation, and in Des Moines last Wednesday, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) blasted the bill as another example of Washington run amok, or, as he put it, “government taking over the Internet.”

Mitt Romney, the front-runner, has issued only general statements that as president he would “take aggressive action to confront nations that do not protect American ideas and creations,” a campaign spokeswoman said recently.

Lawmakers who will cast votes are being singled out via online campaigns. Users of social news website Reddit targeted Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for his support, but it his office quickly denied that he was a co-sponsor, although they said he was watching the debate “carefully.”

The Stop Online Piracy Act has 31 co-sponsors in the House, and a much more significant 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, spanning the ideological and geographic spectrum.

From a pure numbers point of view, immediate prospects actually look good for the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a cloture vote on the Senate’s Protect IP Act on Jan. 24, in the face of a vow by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to filibuster. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to resume deliberations on the bill when Congress returns, but votes on a series of amendments make it clear that there’s probably enough support for passage out of committee.

Studios, labor and no less than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are casting the legislation as a jobs issue, as a way of ensuring support. However, they face the ever-growing strength of the Internet lobby in mounting its own campaign. The chieftains of Google, Facebook and Yahoo, among many others, are opposed to the legislation, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is weighing whether to stage a “blackout” of the online encyclopedia as a kind of boycott to a measure he views as a threat to free speech.

That is proving to be a potent way to get the word out about legislation that many may otherwise not even be aware is pending.

“I don’t think anyone in the entertainment business was thinking that this (legislation) would be facing this much opposition,” said Robert Levine, author of the recently published “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.” “I think they underestimated the extent to which technology companies could get people upset about a bill that, whether or not you think it is a good idea, is changing pretty quickly.”

He was referring to recent amendments to the legislation — with the expectation of more — to address free speech and other concerns over SOPA. Levine added, “Even though the bill is getting hammered into shape, the rhetoric really isn’t getting toned down.”

Supporters complain that the legislation has been unfairly demonized, driven by tech firms with a distinct advantage, particularly with users who have a much more personal connection to say, Twitter, than they may have a movie or TV show. As much as Hollywood has tried to campaign for the legislation with commercials featuring average workers hit by piracy, it doesn’t seem to have the same emotional pull as the way that the issue has been cast from the array of bloggers and commentators who see it as a threat.

In a recent appearance at the Center for American Progress, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd has compared the debate over the legislation to that of health-care and Wall Street reform, which he said fell prey to “misinformation — spread both knowingly by those who have a financial interest in the status quo and by those who are well-intentioned but misled.”

Just how significant an impact the opposition will have remains to be seen. Last week, a planned boycott of domain name registrar GoDaddy fizzled, but the company had said several days before that it was withdrawing its support for the legislation.

Typically, when it comes to public attention, such legislation has little resonance beyond industries. As one studio anti-piracy official recently explained it, the more noise that is made around it, and the more controversial it seems, the more apt that lawmakers are to perceive their vote as a risk with little upside if it is viewed as a “Hollywood” bill.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) told The Hill recently that he expects Obama to sign the bill. But opponents are trying their best to stop it, even to make it an election year liability for a president challenged to boost enthusiasm from the Netroots in 2012. More than 45,000 names have been gathered on a petition posted at the White House’s We the People site, urging a veto — surpassing the 25,000 needed for the administration to post an official response. As of yet, none has been posted.