I interviewed Senior Counsel for Vimeo, Michael Cheah, who shares his thoughts about why The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Vimeo is running messages on January 18th (today) highlighting the issue and will invite users to tell Congress to reject SOPA. 

Update on SOPA – Co-sponsors in Congress Changing Their Tune?

Politico.com reported today “SOPA blackout leads co-sponsors to defect”, and that Co-sponsors of the legislation in the House of Representatives have changed sides and other lawmakers have called for more debate before any vote.” Some members of Congress are joining the blackout protest, while others are using the protests to propose changes to the existing bill, as well as a halt to the vote on PIPA (the sister bill to SOPA in the Senate), currently scheduled for a procedural vote on January 24th.

While this can be viewed positively by protesters of SOPA and PIPA, it’s way too early to say if either of these bills will take a new form that is more agreeable with fighting online piracy, and balancing protections of both intellectual property rights (IP) with freedom of expression and fair use.

Interview With Vimeo’s Senior Legal Counsel On SOPA

If SOPA, or some legislation in the near future like SOPA was passed into federal law, how would it affect the web video ecosystem?

SOPA would have a chilling effect on free speech on the web. Basically, we could no longer rely what we currently have in place, and that is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Video sharing websites — and user-generated content (UGC) websites in general – would be forced to somehow review all of the content uploaded to their sites (before allowing any it to be posted online). In addition to being wildly impractical and expensive for companies behind these websites, this would result in a tremendous amount of content being wrongly removed (or never allowed up) because of the mere possibility that it could be infringing.

Would that specifically apply Vimeo as well?

It would make it significantly more expensive to operate. We’d end up spending all of our time either reviewing content or developing technology to try to prevent people from uploading unauthorized materials. And since no system would ever be foolproof, we’d undoubtedly face the prospect of never-ending litigation and threats to turn our website off, while at the same time facing unhappy customers whose content was wrongly removed.

It sounds like you would have to fall on the side of censoring or not allowing most videos of what Vimeo members can currently post online.

Since there’s cost-effective no way to have people personally review all of the materials that are uploaded to a video sharing site the size of Vimeo, we’d have to implement technologies to automatically reject content that might be infringing. It’s impossible to take concepts like “fair use” into consideration in any kind of automated technology, so users who post videos that lawfully criticize or parody copyrighted works would see their videos rejected.

Even people who have the lawful right to upload a video might see their content rejected, simply because it has a title or description that contains some particular keyword that might suggest copyright infringement.

To give you an example, if we had a system that looked for videos with the words “stolen” and “piracy” in their descriptions, you’d find a video on Vimeo that (ironically enough) was posted by a pro-SOPA group called Creative America:


How do you think this will affect new startups and innovation in the online video space?

I don’t see why anyone would want to get into a space where they would face virtually unlimited liability for hosting third party videos that they don’t have any control over. One of the reasons why services like Vimeo, YouTube, and Facebook have flourished over the past decade or so is that they could host UGC without fear of crippling lawsuits so long as they complied with the DMCA. If you take that away and give copyright holders the right to sue and shut down anyone who hosts even a single piece of copyright content, you introduce a tremendous amount of uncertainty, which will have a chilling effect on startups and innovation.

According to SOPA’s supporters, they say it is primarily intended to stop online piracy overseas. Do you agree with that?

No. SOPA’s provisions go so far beyond foreign piracy that I can only conclude that it’s real aim is to reverse the DMCA. If foreign piracy is the real target, there are ways of addressing that without radically changing the Internet as we know it.

Do you believe the DMCA is sufficient to handle IP legal issues, including with online video?

I think Congress got it right when it passed the DMCA. The DMCA’s notice and takedown rules strike the right balance between promoting online innovation and protecting copyright holders’ interests. Congress recognized that copyright holders are best positioned to determine where their content is and whether or not they want it there.

What would you propose, if anything, that would better deal with the problem of online piracy overseas, while protecting the ability of companies Vimeo and startups to operate, innovate, and have a sustainable revenue model?

Congress could easily draft legislation that specifically targets overseas piracy while retaining the DMCA. An alternative to SOPA, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act), does just that by focusing on the revenue sources supporting rogue foreign websites.

You can watch more videos of legislators supporting the OPEN act at the YouTube Channel, “KeepTheWebOpen.” And if you have the time, I recommend watching this C-SPAN video below:

Vimeo’s Resources for Learning More About SOPA, PIPA, & OPEN

  • Read the OPEN Act at www.keepthewebOPEN. (Twitter hash tag, #OPEN)
  • Fightforthefuture, who’s video we’ve featured in an earlier post, did a good job describing the problems with SOPA in its video.
  • NetCoalition provides in-depth analyses of the legislation on their Website.
  • The American Library Association’s website at districtdispatch.org put together a Quick Reference Guide showing the differences among SOPA, PIPA (essentially, the Senate version of SOPA), and the OPEN Act. You can also check out this bill comparison from the office of Congressman Darrel Issa.

View the full-size chart at http://www.keepthewebopen.com/sopa-vs-open

Users who want to learn more about these bills, and how they can lend their own voice and be heard, can go to these sites: