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Tech titans warn MovieTube suit could revive Stop Online Piracy Act

Google, Facebook among those that say the film studios' suit against the MovieTube site aims to resurrect the wide powers that copyright holders would have had if SOPA had become law.

Demonstrators took to the streets in 2012 to protest SOPA, ultimately helping to kill the controversial bill. Sarah Tew / CNET

The Stop Online Piracy Act died in 2012. But now some of the largest technology companies in Silicon Valley are growing concerned that major movie studios are trying to bring it back.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Yahoo on Monday filed a brief with the US District Court of the Southern District of New York in opposition to a lawsuit filed by studios against movie-viewing site MovieTube. The companies argue that the lawsuit, which was filed last month, is overly broad and is surreptitiously attempting to resurrect the wide powers that would have been afforded copyright holders if SOPA had been signed into law.

We "recognize the vital importance of combating infringement on the Internet, and [we] work with rightsholders, including Plaintiffs themselves, to address those issues on a daily basis," the brief reads, referring to the film companies that filed the lawsuit. "But in pursuing the Defendants here, and attempting to resurrect the defeated SOPA, Plaintiffs disregard established limits on judicial power and the careful balance that Congress has struck between the rights of online service providers and copyright owners. Those protections cannot be swept aside so readily. Plaintiffs do not need, and should not be allowed, to '[c]ut a great road through the law to get after the Devil.'"

The claims made by the tech companies bring back to the fore the fear and subsequent fierce outcry that developed in October 2011 when SOPA was introduced to the US House of Representatives by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). The lawsuit may also anger critics who watched SOPA die -- and want to keep it that way.

MovieTube as a conduit to SOPA?

In the lawsuit filed last month, the Motion Picture Association of America's largest members -- including Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Disney and Twentieth Century Fox -- have charged MovieTube with infringing their copyrights and trademarks. The companies charge MovieTube with actively operating websites that allegedly allow users to watch their films free of charge. The studios say that they have not been compensated in any way for MovieTube content, and have asked the court for damages and profit MovieTube may have generated off their films. Those damages could cost tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the number of unique instances of alleged infringement.

The issue for Silicon Valley, however, is the other demands the motion picture industry has made on the court, should it win its case. The companies have specifically asked that any third parties that may or may not have direct business with MovieTube immediately censor all content related to the company.

The studios have requested that "third parties providing services used in connection with any of the MovieTube Websites...including without limitation, web hosting providers, cloud services providers, digital advertising service providers, search-based online advertising services, domain name registration privacy protection services, providers of social media services (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), and user-generated and online content services (e.g., YouTube, Flickr and Tumblr) be required to cease or disable providing such services to (i) Defendants in relation to Infringing Copies or infringement of Plaintiffs' Marks; and/or (ii) any and all of the MovieTube Websites."

That section alone, the technology companies argue, is the basis of SOPA and would represent a dangerous precedent that could materially harm the entire Web.

"Indeed, the injunction proposed here would require the same online intermediaries targeted by SOPA to engage in the same kind of content and domain blocking that would have been required under SOPA had it been enacted," the companies wrote. "The Court should not allow intellectual property rightsholders to obtain through the existing statutes the very sort of third-party blocking orders that failed to gain legislative approval."

A look at SOPA

SOPA was a bill, backed by the entertainment industry, that would have given copyright holders the ability to remove their allegedly infringed content from websites. The issue, however, was that SOPA, and its Senate-based cousin, the Protect IP Act, would have given copyright holders profound control over any company that may or may not have been a party to the infringement. If SOPA had passed, copyright holders could have obtained a court order requiring that no company could do business with a site that housed allegedly infringing content. The act would have also given copyright holders the ability to block search engines from linking to infringing sites and ban Internet service providers from allowing access to those sites.

The sweeping legislation would have had a profound impact on smaller sites, potentially putting them out of business. For larger companies, like Google, the service could have significantly damaged its YouTube video-sharing service, which allows users to upload video content, including parts of movies, television shows, and other copyrighted content. The company's search and advertising platforms may have also been negatively affected.

Silicon Valley fights back

Silicon Valley lined up in opposition to SOPA, arguing that it presented "a serious risk to our industry's continued track record of innovation and job creation, as well as to our nation's cybersecurity." Critics argued that SOPA would have blacklisted the next YouTube or Wikipedia and effectively kill innovation on the Web. They also noted that companies like YouTube and others work closely with copyright holders and respond to takedown requests whenever legitimate infringement is identified.

It wasn't long before the momentum opposing SOPA overwhelmed US lawmakers. Silicon Valley companies called on their users to protest the bill, creating a massive public outcry that, according to some counts, included over 10 million Internet protesters. Tech companies also collaborated on a censorship day to illustrate what could happen to users if SOPA passed.

Ultimately, the efforts worked. In 2012, SOPA was dead. Indeed, the bill was so soundly defeated by public outcry that by 2013, lawmakers had grown wary of introducing tech-related legislation, worrying that it could become "SOPA-fied."

The battle continues

Despite its loss, the entertainment industry has trudged on in hopes of defeating alleged copyright infringers. Film studios, TV studios and the recording industry have all actively sought out illegally shared content and worked to have it removed. The MPAA, which represents the major film studios, argues that protecting copyrighted content is crucial -- it contributes $1 trillion and 5.4 million jobs to the economy.

"To support copyright law is to support technological ingenuity that ultimately benefits everyone," the MPAA writes on its website. "Copyright protection is about providing the right incentives to make sure everyone has access to content across multiple platforms, and that the people who make that content are able to continue to do so."

The district court has yet to rule on the MovieTube case and it's unclear how the brief will factor into its decision. The "friend of the court" brief, also known as an amicus curiae, is little more than a letter of support for one party in the case. Amicus curiae may only come from companies not involved in the case and are designed to sway the opinion of the court.

Now that the brief has been filed, Google, Facebook, Twitter and the others can do little more than wait to see how the case plays out.

Facebook and Yahoo declined to comment. Google, Twitter and the MPAA did not respond to a request for comment.

(Via The Guardian)