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How Republican opposition derailed SOPA and Protect IP

SOPA and Protect IP Act have finally splintered a Democrat-Republican alliance in favor of expanding copyright law that's been in place since the 1990s.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
Opponents of a pair of Hollywood-backed copyright bills took to the streets yesterday in San Francisco and other cities.
Opponents of a pair of Hollywood-backed copyright bills took to the streets January 19 in San Francisco and other cities. James Martin/CNET

Ever since GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole claimed that Hollywood produced "nightmares of depravity" that coarsened American culture and made "deviancy" mainstream, movie studios and record labels have enjoyed a spectacularly uneasy relationship with the Republican Party.

Copyright has been the exception to that strife: since the late 1990s, Hollywood-backed proposals to expand copyright law--the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Induce Act, the Pro-IP Act--have all been embraced, or at least not opposed, by Republicans.

During President Obama's Google+ chat this week, he stopped short of saying he opposes SOPA.
During President Obama's Google+ chat this week, he stopped short of saying he opposes SOPA.

The controversy over the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, has finally splintered that alliance.

In a Google+ hangout this week, President Obama carefully avoided criticizing SOPA. "I think that it's going to be possible for us" to find a workable approach, he predicted. During his State of the Union Address a week earlier, Obama echoed a Hollywood talking point, saying that "movies, music, and software" must not be "pirated."

The four remaining Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, have been far more critical of the bills. During their January 19 debate in South Carolina, all four slammed SOPA. Rep. Ron Paul noted that he was the first House Republican to oppose the bill, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich quipped: "Well, you're asking a conservative about the economic interests of Hollywood."

That has left Obama in the delicate position of trying to solicit election-year support and cash from both Northern and Southern California, but without alienating either (or the millions of Internet users who are no fans of the bills).

"It makes perfect sense from a political point of view--the Hollywood and Silicon Valley communities are both strong supporters of his, and the last thing he needs is a Californian civil war between them," says James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which has been critical of SOPA. "The Republicans are free of such encumbrances."

From the president's perspective, the election-year timing of the debate over SOPA--and last month's protests that involved millions of prospective voters and tech firms that opposed the proposed law--could hardly be worse.

The Obama campaign had planned to continue a series of $38,500-per-plate Hollywood fundraisers hosted by Hollywood stars including Will Smith and Antonio Banderas, followed by stops in the homes of Silicon Valley luminaries including Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and venture capitalist John Doerr. (Obama's top fundraisers are in California, according to a list the campaign released yesterday.)

But after the White House raised some questions about SOPA on January 14, Hollywood's phalanx of lobbyists viewed it as tantamount to treason.

"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," Hollywood's top lobbyist, former Democratic senator Chris Dodd, said on Fox News a few days later.

Ritual invocation of "bipartisan"
For at least a decade, the Motion Picture Association of America and its allies steered their proposals for new copyright bills through Congress by carefully wooing key Democrats and Republicans on the committees that write copyright law.

The SOPA-supporting National Music Publishers' Association feted Rep. Lamar Smith at a dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, where the Texas Republican and author of SOPA received the "President's Award" for his enthusiasm for expanding copyright law. In November, the group hired Allison Halataei, Smith's deputy chief of staff, as its top lobbyist and vice president for government affairs. The TV, movie, and music industries are the top donors to Smith's 2012 campaign committee, according to data complied by the Center for Responsive Politics.

And it's unlikely that Patrick Leahy's thespian abilities--he heads the Senate Judiciary committee and authored the Protect IP Act--earned the Vermont Democrat cameo appearances in two Batman movies, including the 2008 film "The Dark Knight."

Those concerted attempts to enlist key Republicans have allowed Hollywood to claim that its legislative proposals are "bipartisan," a crucial advantage, even if only a handful of GOP politicians actually showed any enthusiasm for the bills.

The phrase "Stop Online Piracy Act" and "bipartisan" appears no fewer than 113 times on the MPAA's Web site. The Recording Industry Association of America's initial press release from October lauding Smith for introducing SOPA was titled: "House introduces bipartisan legislation."

The MPAA did not immediately responded to a requests for comment from CNET for this article. Mitch Glazier, senior executive vice president at the RIAA, said in e-mail:

Strong bipartisan congressional and administration support for the grant of exclusive rights to creative and industrial works under the Constitution remains as strong as ever, as does support for strong enforcement of those rights and protection of American products and ingenuity. That support has been demonstrated by the leadership of the committees in both Houses under different party leadership. The question...is not whether to protect, defend and enforce those rights, but rather how to do it.

As of late last year, the RIAA's and MPAA's repeated invocation of "bipartisan" was correct. In the Senate, at least, Protect IP enjoyed support from 25 Democrats and 16 Republicans in December. But after last month's protests, GOP senators soon fled: a new head count shows that Protect IP has 22 Democratic but only 7 Republican supporters.

One tactical mistake that supporters made, according to a representative of a Silicon Valley company, was when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid identified Protect IP as a top priority.

In the current political calculus, once Reid, a Democrat, began calling the bill an "extremely important" piece of legislation, Republicans were practically honor-bound to find reasons to derail it. Which is probably why Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell began warning that there are "serious issues" with the bill (for his part, Reid still says Protect IP could move forward "in the coming weeks").

Those defections came as an unpleasant surprise to supporters of SOPA and Protect IP, who had enlisted the Republican-leaning Americans for Tax Reform and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a way to inoculate themselves from charges that it was a Hollywood-backed proposal. But, as criticism mounted, ATR told CNET that it doesn't "unequivocally support" SOPA, and the Chamber's enthusiasm for the legislation became muted after some tech companies began dropping out of the organization.

The Heritage Foundation, which has in recent years supported expansions of copyright law but drew the line at SOPA, will now, through its advocacy arm, negatively score politicians' votes in favor of the bills. RedState.com, which went dark in last month's protests, has proposed funding "primary challenges against the incumbent sponsors of SOPA."

That might be why Utah's Orrin Hatch--Hollywood's favorite Republican senator and a Protect IP sponsor--effectively threw his MPAA allies under the bus when saying that the bill is "simply not ready for prime time."

Hatch is up for reelection in 2012, and he's facing the "toughest challenge" in years, according to a recent report in the Salt Lake Tribune. His defection from the ranks of Protect IP's supporters is notable: Hatch previously had proposed allowing copyright holders to remotely destroy the computers of music pirates and banning peer-to-peer networks.

"Republicans are more naturally the party of skepticism about government," says Berin Szoka, head of the free-market think tank TechFreedom. "That's been their message on net neutrality and other Democrat-led efforts to regulate the Internet." Now, Szoka says, they're returning to their roots.