Nearly three years after a massive online protest derailed the Stop Online Piracy Act, many lawmakers are still nervous about even uttering the name "SOPA" in public.
The bill, which once had broad bipartisan support and was a top priority for the entertainment industry, has become a dirty word. The backlash was a traumatic lesson for members of Congress about the danger of siding against tech companies and Internet activists, who warned the bill could break the Internet.
Now, for the first time since SOPA crashed and burned in early 2012, the House Judiciary Committee is preparing to work on a major update of copyright law. As lawmakers cautiously return to the issue of copyright protection, the SOPA protest looms large in their minds.
The issue is still a powder keg that seems ready to explode at the first spark.
"Copyright touches everyone's lives now because we all have copying devices in our pockets and in our homes," said Mitch Stoltz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He warned that digital-rights organizations will be ready to battle any legislation they see as a threat to online expression.
"The SOPA protest shows that Internet users are a political constituency, and I don't think that has changed," he said. "I think we saw it this year in the response to the [Federal Communications Commission's] lukewarm proposal on net neutrality."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who fought against SOPA, agreed that lawmakers could face another Internet uprising if they don't tread carefully.
"Members don't want to be in the midst of that again. Industry proponents don't want to go through that again," she said. "And so I would hope [House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte] would not want to go through that again."
Since April 2013, the Judiciary Committee has been holding hearings to review the state of copyright law. The members are expected to start working on actual legislation sometime in the new Congress.
While no one would dare suggest resurrecting SOPA, some lawmakers (along with the movie and music industries) still want to address rampant online piracy.
"Although the Internet and the vast majority of networking technologies are not tools designed for pirating goods, bad actors have used these technologies to commit theft," Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who cosponsored SOPA, said at a hearing earlier this year. "Lengthy and expensive civil and criminal cases have followed, often leaving copyright owners at risk of ongoing theft for years."
SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA, sought to crack down on online piracy by requiring Internet service providers, search engines, and advertisers to cut off access to sites "dedicated" to copyright infringement. Entertainment groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America argued the legislation was critical for combating online theft and protecting U.S. jobs.
But Web companies like Google and an array of digital-rights groups warned the bill would restrict online freedom and lead to widespread censorship of legitimate material.
On Jan. 18, 2012, Wikipedia and hundreds of other websites shut down in protest. Google, the most visited site in the world, plastered a black censorship bar on its logo and collected 7 million signatures urging Congress to drop the legislation. Phones in congressional offices rang off the hooks.
Chastened, the bill's supporters had to retreat and promise to bury the bill. The protest marked a decisive shift in the balance of power in Washington away from the entertainment industry to Internet companies and their allies.
Movie and music groups are aiming much lower in the new review of copyright law.
One main focus is likely to be music licensing, a complex mess of copyright rules that few argue makes any sense anymore. Satellite radio like SiriusXM, Internet radio like Pandora, "on demand" services like Spotify, and traditional AM and FM stations all obey different rules for paying songwriters and musicians.
Lawmakers are also likely to consider giving the Copyright Office additional staff and funding to help it keep up with its workload.
And they are almost certain to explore some way to combat online piracy. One pro-copyright lobbyist suggested that Congress should create an alternative dispute-resolution system for content owners to go after pirates. The system would allow copyright holders to seek monetary damages without having to pursue an expensive federal lawsuit, the lobbyist said.
Some in the entertainment industry are also aiming to weaken legal protections for websites that unwittingly host user content that infringes on copyrights. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides a "safe harbor" for websites like YouTube and Facebook that promptly respond to requests to take down illegal content.
Critics argue that the law doesn't do enough to stop the people who steal and profit from the works of others. But Google and digital-rights groups argue that the protections are vital for ensuring free speech and allowing the Internet industry to thrive. Any attempt to undermine the DMCA safe harbor protections seems like a recipe for another Internet backlash.
An aide to Goodlatte said it's "premature to speculate on an end product" of the copyright review and that the committee will continue to collect more information at hearings when Congress returns in January.
Goodlatte named one of the most outspoken opponents of SOPA, Rep. Darrell Issa, to chair the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on intellectual property issues. But in the news release announcing Issa's appointment, Goodlatte said that he plans to deal with all copyright issues at the full committee, skipping over Issa's panel.
It appears that Issa, a longtime ally of the tech industry, wants to stay on good terms with his chairman. In an emailed statement, Issa said he is a "big supporter" of Goodlatte's copyright review and promised not to try to derail it.
"Our nation's copyright laws are both outdated and inconsistent, applying different rules to different players," the California Republican said. "Some intellectual property debates are inherently divisive, but the copyright review is a real opportunity to build a consensus that benefits most everyone."
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