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Post-SOPA surprise: Common ground for tech, big media

For some of the parties that clashed on on the controversial antipiracy legislation, a spirit of cooperation may be setting in. But is it too fragile to last?

Protesters in New York rally against the Stop Online Piracy Act in January. Greg Sandoval/CNET

A spirit of cooperation appears to be rising in the technology and entertainment sectors regarding antipiracy efforts.

Three months after the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), leaders from both sides say they wish to work together to forge a new response to illegal file sharing. No kidding -- there's even talk about trying to once again pass antipiracy legislation.

Gigi Sohn, a well-known Internet freedom fighter, says she can help protect consumers by advising big media and ISPs on fair antipiracy rules. YouTube/screen shot Greg Sandoval

Though skeptics predict all these kumbaya feelings will quickly turn to bitterness, there's no mistaking that detente is in the air.

On Tuesday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), one of the lawmakers who helped kill SOPA, said he believes new antipiracy legislation will be passed but only after all parties agree to make compromises. He asked for the cooperation of Facebook, Google, and other tech companies.

On Monday, Gigi Sohn, a longtime advocate for Internet users, joined the advisory board of the Copyright Information Center (CIC), an organization that will help support an antipiracy program known as graduated response. The program, created by the large music and movie companies, is designed to discourage illegal downloading and calls for Internet service providers to pressure customers who do. The plan could include temporary interruption of service.

Last month, the Internet Society, an umbrella organization for the Internet's key standards bodies, surprised many in tech by hiring Paul Brigner, a former senior executive from the Motion Picture Association of America. Brigner is an attorney and notable SOPA supporter.

These seem like significant olive branches being extended. They're certainly resonating with some copyright owners. Chris Castle, a lawyer who works on music and technology issues and is a vocal supporter of copyright owners, said Sohn's involvement in the CIC and Issa's comments were "encouraging." The Center for Democracy & Technology, another Internet-user advocacy group and longtime critic of big entertainment on copyright matters, said in a blog post that it was "cautiously optimistic" about CIC.

Perhaps the White House senses the time is right for a reconciliation. The Obama administration last week called for a united effort to once again try creating antipiracy legislation that targets offshore Web sites. President Obama last year criticized SOPA and sister legislation in the Senate known as the Protect IP Act (PIPA). The administration said it wouldn't support anything that would endanger freedom of expression or increases cyber-security risk but did say "combating online infringement" is a priority "of the highest order."

If the president really wants some kind of compromise, his office would do well to help mediate. Efforts to create a partnership between the two sides could easily unravel. The SOPA fight was a bruising political war and there's plenty of enmity left over in both camps. Copyright owners accused tech companies of misleading voters about SOPA's impacts and using scare tactics. Tech companies accused big entertainment of initially shutting them out of the legislative process and trying to use government to look out for their special interests.

"Color me skeptical that the [seeming goodwill between the sides] is little more than rhetorical overtures," said Corynne McSherry, a lawyer and the intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates on behalf of Web users and tech companies. "To the extent that peace needs to be made, it's not as important for Silicon Valley and Hollywood to make peace. What really matters is for Hollywood to make peace with Internet users. They're the ones that really drove the blackouts [of Web sites as part of the anti-SOPA protest]."

Though Castle said he thinks there's a "healthy attempt to work together constructively," he also noted that in past negotiations with tech companies, copyright owners felt the deck was stacked against them.

Andrew Rasiej, chairman of the NY Tech MeetUp, says getting techies to vote no on SOPA was easy. Getting them to say yes to something will be tough. Greg Sandoval/CNET

"We've all heard for years that piracy is the problem but whatever we put on the table wasn't the solution," Castle said. "They said that regardless of the solution. This is a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is."

There are those involved who sound a more moderate tone, but even they note that reaching a compromise is a long shot. Andrew Rasiej is the chairman of New York Tech MeetUp, a group that helps promote the city's tech companies and community. Rasiej organized a 2,000-person SOPA protest rally in January. He said that his group isn't for piracy but neither does it want corporations trying to limit Internet freedoms to protect market positions. He believes it is unlikely they will stop trying to "put the genie back in the bottle."

He also suggested that on many different issues, the tech sector needs to learn to do more than just say "no"

"Saying no is always easier than saying yes," Rasiej said. "As great as [fending off SOPA and PIPA] was, getting the tech community to take their values and create positive public policy out of them will be a much more difficult process."

There are those who don't believe the tech sector's position should change, at least in regards to working with copyright owners on SOPA or graduated response. EFF argues that SOPA and graduated response are bad for consumers and the Internet, and only protect special interests. McSherry says the public very clearly rejected SOPA and predicted that it will likely do the same to graduated response.

She asks why negotiate when the sector is coming off a decisive political victory? McSherry also noted that big entertainment companies appear to be in a weaker position on graduated response than they were on SOPA. The ISPs are very reluctant to become copyrights cops, to say the least. They fear alienating customers. They fought against it for years and only agreed after political pressure was applied.

And ISPs have steadfastly refused to terminate service regardless of how many films or songs a customer downloads. Sohn said that in her new role she will fight the adoption of even temporary service suspensions.

McSherry said SOPA should send the ISPs a message that the political climate has changed. Presumably she means that the power now belongs with consumers and Internet companies.

"Lots of ISPs didn't adopt [graduated response]," McSherry said "Those that did don't have to do this now."