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Opinion: ESA and SOPA - between a rock and a hard place

The Stop Online Piracy Act is front and center in the headlines again, as opponents to the legislation shine the spotlight on companies and organizations supporting the bill, giving the ESA one massive headache.

Chris Morris, Blogger

January 4, 2012

4 Min Read

It can't be a lot of fun working at the Entertainment Software Association these days. SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act – is front and center in the headlines again, as opponents to the legislation shine the spotlight on companies and organizations supporting the bill. That, predictably, has whipped up the forces of Anonymous and other shadow groups, who are calling for DDoS attacks and other forms of public shame. As you've likely heard by this point, one of the groups supporting SOPA is the Entertainment Software Association. And while it's easy to point an accusatory finger at the group, they're actually caught somewhat in the crossfire here. The ESA, as an entity, exists for one reason: To protect the interests of the video game industry and its publishers. And SOPA, at its core, is a bill that will help do that. Is it overreaching or overly broad? There's certainly a case to be made in favor of that. And there are plenty of big names opposing it, including Facebook, AOL, Yahoo and Google. But those companies all have business reasons to worry. They all link to content regularly. And the legislation would give copyright holder the power to take legal action when it discovers a site is infringing upon that copyright, possibly including those that embed such a link. Actions could include demanding that search engines and social networking sites block access to the site; advertisers cease doing business with the accused site; and internet service providers block access. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that an ISP blocking Google is a big deal. But the ESA doesn't link to anything. Thus, it has little, if anything, to lose by supporting SOPA, other than goodwill. In supporting the legislation, it's doing its duty to protect publishers, who lose tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars each year to piracy, according to the trade group. (Although, to be fair: The dollars-lost figure is a squishy one, as it presumes people would have bought the game in the first place if piracy hadn't been an option – an assumption that is far from certain.) Of course, in doing what it believes is right for the industry as a whole, it's angering some of the people in that industry. While many corporations and trade groups might support SOPA, it's pretty tough to find an individual who does. Nathan Fouts, formerly of Resistance developer Insomniac, and the founder of Mommy's Best Games, made an impassioned and cogent appeal to developers asking them to help convince their companies to get the ESA to reverse course. And he's not alone. But those parties are fighting an uphill battle. Sony's alleged support, through the ESA, brought new threats from Anonymous, which played a part (though how extensive has yet to be determined) in last year's hacking of the PlayStation Network. "Supporting SOPA is like trying to throw an entire company from off a bridge," the group said in its usual bombastic style. "Your support to the act is a signed death warrant to Sony Company and Associates. Therefore, yet again, we have decided to destroy your network. We will dismantle your phantom from the internet. Prepare to be extinguished. Justice will be swift, and it will be for the people, whether some like it or not. Sony, you have been warned." Most game companies are staying silent on their position on SOPA. They're using their trade group to fight the battle for them now. That's not scurrilous. It's the job of a trade organization. And while the law remains distasteful to many people, this is a case where the ESA is in a spot where it's essentially impossible to win. If it continues to support SOPA, it loses gamer goodwill – big time. If it doesn't, however, it goes against its own charter and risks the support of its publisher members. In either event, it's not an enviable spot to be in. [Addendum: There seems to be some misunderstanding about a line in this column -- and since this is such a hot button issue, it's worth clarifying. Like a lot of you, I'm not a fan of SOPA -- and certainly wasn't trying to defend it here. The point of the story was the ESA sees this as a tool to help it defend publishers. The main bone of contention seems to be the sentence "And SOPA, at its core, is a bill that will help do that." My point was that, while the bill is incredibly flawed and can be overreaching, SOPA does have the potential to help stop the spread of pirated content. It, unfortunately, does so with an incredible amount of overkill and collateral damage. It's using a nuke to get rid of a cockroach -- but the cockroach is dead all the same. It doesn't make it right, but hopefully it gives insight into why the ESA is supporting it.]

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About the Author(s)

Chris Morris


Gamasutra editor at large Chris Morris has covered the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and breaking several major stories, including the existence of the Game Boy Advance and the first details on Half-Life 2. Beyond Gamasutra, he currently contributes to a number of publications, including CNBC.com, Variety and Official Xbox Magazine. Prior to that, he was the author of CNNMoney's popular "Game Over" column. His work is cited regularly by other media outlets and he has appeared on The CBS Evening News, CNN, CNN Headline News, CNN International, CNNfn, G4 and Spike TV.

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