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SOPA, PIPA, and the game development community

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With all of the rhetoric around piracy, what's good for business, what stifles innovation, and what not, it can be difficult for small business owners, like myself and other indie developers in Colorado, to know what to make of SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act) being discussed in congress. The acts seem to be focused on stopping piracy which should be a good thing for indie developers - less piracy usually will mean more revenue - but the details of these bills should give every business owner, not just indies, cause for pause. And while both bills have been pulled from consideration "in their current form", rest assured that both of these bills will be resurrected by congress under different names.

Both bills are sponsored by the recording and motion picture associations and claim to target foreign websites that are responsible for flagrant piracy of protected content (copyrighted material). The issue that has been raised by opponents of both bills - including myself - are that the lawmakers responsible for the legislation are, to be kind, less-than-knowledgeable about the technology used on the Internet. And, sadly, the opponents to the approach being taken were excluded from the committee hearings about the bills.

The concerns for game developers is around how infringement is addressed by both of these bills. Under SOPA, being considered by the House of Representatives, copyright holders would be able to have a site seized when a claim of infringement is filed. Never mind fair use or independently-created content - when the claim is made, the site can be seized. And, beyond that, the site will be removed from the DNS (domain name service - the translator for cnn.com to 157.166.226.26) and from search engines (Google, Bing, et al).

Suppporters claim that rights holders will be judicious in their claims, but history has shown, especially as regards the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), that rights holders are anything but judicious and are apt to file spurious "takedown notices" to services - as evidenced by the number of notices YouTube receives. This leads us to the most egregious of the requirements under SOPA - service providers are responsible for the content of their users. Under DMCA, YouTube is not responsible for their user-created content. They can be required to take down infringing content (unless a "fair use" claim or similar is made by the user), but they're not liable for that content. Under SOPA, YouTube would be the site removed from DNS and search engines - the service provider is liable for the content their users generate. If that doesn't give pause, little will.

For game developers the issue is likely to be around content - artwork, music, etc. - and potentially around game mechanics that someone - say Electronic Arts - believes they own. Some games completely rip-off another game by using their assets to build the new game - a clear violation under both DMCA and these new bills. This is far more the exception than the rule, though, and most indie developers are apt to focus more on "their" creation than on making the next Farmville (especially one using Farmville's assets).

In protest of SOPA and PIPA, many sites (including my own company's) and several large sites shutdown for a day. Google blacked-out their logo, reddit was completely dark, and Wikipedia had a protest day message posted (as seen in the slideshow). The protest had an impact and congress has pulled these bills back. The money behind the bills is significant, though, and Christopher Dodd, former senator and current president of the MPAA, summed it up thusly:

"Candidly, those who count on quote 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake...

Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake." (link here)

It's obvious that the MPAA, RIAA, and other organizations that support this kind of legislation are well-funded and have, in the past, shown a reluctance to embrace new technology (e.g., VCRs, DVDs, streaming content, iTunes, etc.). Many claim that this is simply legislation to protect an outdated business model.

Learn about these bills, track their progress, talk to your congressmen/-women and senators, and make your voice heard. In this Examiner's mind, these bills provide far too much leverage for the "big fish" to stifle the innovation of the "little fish". It's already hard enough to be an indie developer - working under the spectre of SOPA and PIPA may make that nearly impossible.

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