Subscribe by Email

Your email:

Connect With Us!

Current Articles | RSS Feed RSS Feed

SOPA and PIPA: What Bills Like These Mean to Open Source Software


Online piracy is a serious issue, and media companies are continually looking for ways to fight it. Currently, United States federal law enforcement has the authority to shut down US-based sites that facilitate pirated copyrighted material. Those site owners can face fines and risk their site being shut down – not to mention that whole pesky jail time thing. However, so far none of these threats have managed to put a stop to piracy, especially on those websites not based in the United States (and therefore not as easily subjected to US law) such as the popular site, The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website that hosts torrent files and allows users to share them with each other.

Cue the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, fondly known as SOPA and PIPA. Both bills had intentions to combat copyright infringement on foreign sites by preventing US-based sites from linking to, advertising on, or funding sites that provide pirated content. Sounds great in theory, but the problem is in the bills’ broad language. As it stood the bill would allow for the Justice Department to target websites who were unknowingly or unintentionally hosting links to pirated content. Those sites – including big user-oriented sites like Facebook – could essentially have the plug pulled on them unless they censored the user-generated content to be certain they weren’t hosting anything deemed illegal (this is where the uproar about censorship comes from). You can check out a nice breakdown of SOPA here.

SOPA and PIPA were very recently put on hold after much protesting and petitioning from the likes of Wikipedia, Google, the Free Software Foundation, and angry Internet surfers everywhere – but you can bet this isn’t the last we’ve heard of bills such as these. So what would similar bills mean to open source software if they were realized? Here’s what the potential impact could look like:

Impact on the Virtual Community

Open source communities are an essential part of open source software. In many cases, online forums are some of the only ways to get documentation, technical support or notice of software updates (that is, unless you use a convenient third-party resource like OpenLogic). SOPA, again based on its non-specific language, could have required a site owner to strictly monitor or possibly censor user comments in social platforms, including forums, to avoid risking a user posting a link to a site that promotes or facilitates piracy. These sites, worst-case-scenario, would be liable for the content uploaded to it – if those sites didn’t take control over their user-generated content, you may not be able to find them anymore. Alex Howard at O’Reilly Radar does a great job of explaining this – read more here.

If similar legislation came to fruition, it would likely impact many if not most OSS community websites. For example, let’s say a developer visited a forum and decided to add his two cents and provide a link to extra information. Maybe that link went to a site that provides pirated content or access to pirated content (even if the developer wasn’t aware of this). Theoretically, if the owner of the forum didn’t take action to delete that comment then the site owner could end up in deep water.

The foundation of open source is built upon the freedom of the Internet, and free communication (without liability risk) is one of the most important aspects of the open source community – without it open source wouldn’t function as it was originally intended.

Impact on Open Source Software Usage and Development

Open source projects found (or possibly even perceived) to be aiding online piracy could encounter problems if bills like SOPA and PIPA were to pass. For example, earlier last year the Department of Homeland Security demanded Firefox take down its option to add on MAFIAAfire – an open source project designed to redirect users to alternate domains when they try to access domains (some of which were piracy-aiding) that have been seized by the ICE. Instead of just giving in, Mozilla sent a letter requesting justification of the project’s illegality. If legislation like SOPA and PIPA had been enacted at that point, Mozilla may not have had much of a choice in the matter – they could have had to either remove MAFIAAfire from their repository of add-ons or face harsher consequences, at worst, being shut down. The same could go of any other open source project deemed to be aiding or promoting online piracy – the project could be shut down.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) articulated its disapproval in an open letter issued in opposition of SOPA and PIPA, stating:

“…the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), PIPA requires the use of internet censorship tools, undermines the global nature of the internet, and threatens free speech online. PIPA introduces a deeply concerning degree of legal uncertainty into the internet economy, particularly for users and businesses internationally…”

The OSI went on to list specific issues relating to freedom of speech in the letter, but also expressed its concern that SOPA could create a need for excessive compliance measures, as any web property unknowingly using even a shred of open source that could be interpreted as ‘piracy-friendly,’ it could be shut down. This would ultimately hinder the use of open source, chilling development and possibly risking financial support for the community.

Of course, this post covers what would be “worst-case-scenario” – with SOPA and PIPA stalled, we hopefully won’t have to face harsh legislation like this as a reality. Currently there’s already a bill in line to take its place (check out the OPEN Act, which appears to better protect the freedom of the Internet and is backed by Google, Facebook, Twitter and others). The important thing to remember is that future of open source software is reliant on open Internet and freedom to communicate openly. Not only are these basic human rights, but also these two rights in particular are the ideals the open source community is built upon in the first place. It’s important we continue to give input and preserve the fundamentals that open source stands on so it can continue to grow.

Subscribe to The Enterprise Open Source Blog via email

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Creative Commons License.


Currently, there are no comments. Be the first to post one!
Post Comment
Website (optional)

Allowed tags: <a> link, <b> bold, <i> italics

Enterprise OSS Blog Policy

If you read a post on The Enterprise OSS Blog, please leave a comment. Let us know what you think, even if it's just a few words. Comments do not require approval, but they are moderated.OpenLogic reserves the right to remove any comments it deems inappropriate.


Contact Us

Browse by Tag