SOPA is NOT back — but IPAA could still be a problem

Rep Lamar Smith's IPAA does not equal SOPA

There seems to be some confusion – caused by outright sensationalistic reporting – surrounding U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) new intellectual property bill, the Intellectual Property Attache Act (IPAA). Despite what you may have read, IPAA is not SOPA. Yes, IPAA was originally a small part of SOPA – but it was by no means the part that made SOPA (a.k.a. the Stop Online Piracy Act) such an absolutely wretched piece of legislation.

IPAA concerns the already-established Intellectual Property Attache program. IP attaches are “diplomats” of a sort who push for other countries to adopt laws that protect copyright holders, and help local police in foreign countries enforce IP laws. The U.S. is not the only country that has IP attaches, but its efforts are the most robust.

At its most basic, IPAA is a government agency shuffle. The bill would move the IP attache program from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), where it was first established in 2006, to the Department of Commerce. It would also expand the IP attache program into a full agency, and create a new position: the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property.

Read the full text of IPAA here (pdf).

Now, the expansion of the IP attache program may be problematic because it could lead to the creation of laws by foreign nations that harm the open Internet. It is also a problem to anyone who believes Hollywood and other major group of copyright holders and intellectual property creators already have too much power, and repeatedly push for legislation that benefits them but hurts the public at large. Given this reason, opposition to this bill is completely understandable. What’s unacceptable is that a lot of people are being mislead about what IPAA actually would do.

Here are the three main differences between SOPA and IPAA:

SOPA would have required Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to foreign-based websites accused of copyright infringement using a technique called DNS blocking. Not only would this have likely led to censorship of legitimate websites, but it could have disrupted the entire underlying structure of the Internet, according to experts. Search engines and other websites would have also been forced to block links to allegedly infringing sites. IPAA includes nothing that would explicitly authorize the blocking of any website, nor the censorship of free speech.

SOPA would have forced companies like PayPal or U.S.-based advertisers to stop doing business with websites accused of copyright infringement. IPAA would not. 

As mentioned, the fact that IPAA does not include these provisions in no way means that it is a good bill that will have positive consequences. As TechDirt’s Mike Masnick writes, IPAA would allow the U.S. government to “spend taxpayer money to expand the diplomatic corp with a bunch of people whose job it would be to spread Hollywood’s special copyright interests around the globe…” According to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a vocal critic of SOPA who is co-sponsoring IPAA, however, this is not exactly true as “the cost for these attaches will come from collected [Patent Trademark Office] fees, meaning that the bill is revenue neutral.” Regardless, it still means that IPAA would help the government do Hollywood’s bidding.

IPAA also currently lacks provisions that would ensure these IP attaches promote international legislation that include safety valves, like “fair use,” which is something we enjoy here in the States. Once again, Issa (R-CA) assures that he expects an amendment containing guarantees of “fair use” to be added to IPAA prior to its markup in the House Judiciary Committee. Failure to add this provision would certainly make IPAA more troubling – but still not as problematic as SOPA was.

Finally, at first it seemed as though IPAA was being pushed quickly through the Congressional ringer without opportunity for the public to weigh in on its contents. Despite being scheduled for markup by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, IPAA was never formally introduced. And it appears as though debates surrounding the bill’s language are currently taking place on Capitol Hill, giving more time for the public to learn about the bill.

Despite the potential problems with IPAA, the main reason the bill seems to be generating such outrage is that it was authored by Rep. Smith, the main person responsible for SOPA. Smith’s brazen dismissal of the anti-SOPA crowd, and his political doublespeak surrounding what SOPA did and did not include has made him an enemy of the Internet for life. Short of pushing through legislation that would give every American free high-speed Internet access and a MacBook Air, nothing Smith does will ever been seen as anything but dangerous in the eyes of a good many Web users. I know because I’m one of them. But that does not excuse completely ignoring what IPAA actually is. If we want to fight back against IPAA, we better first get our facts straight.  

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.