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SOPA: Bane of the D&D Blogger?

tarrasque sopa smallWhen I started blogging about all things D&D 4E almost three years ago, I never imagined that I might one day be writing a political commentary about anything more serious than which side of the Edition Wars you should be on.  And for the record, I don’t care which D&D Edition you’re playing as long as you’re playing the heck out of it, in any form, and sharing it with your fellow RP gamers!

But sadly, there is something dark and terrible looming on the horizon, it’s called SOPA or the Stop Online Piracy Act, and it’s a bill being proposed to Congress that is an attack on the very foundations of Free Speech on the Internet, and on due process of so-called “internet piracy” in the courts.  And let me assure you, fellow gamers, if this piece of legislation is finally signed into law, it could be as destructive to the online D&D gaming community as dropping a rabid tarrasque into the middle of an unsuspecting halfling village!

Divine Retribution has never been easier!

On the surface, a law which prohibits online piracy would seem like a “very good thing”.  It would allow owners of copyrighted material to protect their property, thus preventing the loss of their material to downloading and sharing without their permission.  I myself had a recent experience with this sort of piracy, when I found PDFs of adventures which I had self-published on RPGNow were being posted to 4Shared.com for free, allowing anyone to download them.  At the time, I remember being outraged, particularly when the price of the PDFs are nominal at best, and yet my hard work was being copied and downloaded by anyone who wanted it.

Thankfully, there is a mechanism in place on the Internet, called the DMCA or Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which allows me to contact 4Share and request the copyrighted material to be taken down.  Sure, it was a pain, and outrageous that I would have to go to such lengths to protect my own work, but in the end my work was removed from 4Share, and that was the end of the crisis.

Unfortunately, SOPA goes far beyond the DCMA in scope, and would have allowed me, as an aggrieved publisher, to make a complaint against 4Share, and actually cause the entire 4Share website to be shut down, all because someone posted a couple of three-buck module PDFs without my permission!  And further, under SOPA, I would not have to hire a lawyer to shut down 4Share, or any other similar “piracy” site, because all I have to do is complain to the DNS hosting company about the copyrighted materials being shared illegally, and 4Share would simply vanish from the Internet as an entity until it proved itself innocent of wrongdoing!

The wording in the SOPA legislation is so vague that due process has almost been entirely forgotten in a rush to protect against piracy.  The current draft, which will be debated tomorrow in the Judiciary Committee before being sent to Congress, allows anyone to shut down a website by simply making a claim that a site has copyrighted material on it, and the law literally forces the hosting services, DNS, and search engines to “disappear” the website until it can be proven that the site is not a pirate!

More merciless than any Mind Flayer…

So at this point, you might be asking yourself why this law should be so threatening to the D&D community and to fansites and bloggers discussing their favorite fantasy role-playing game?

Sadly, the greatest loss to the D&D online gaming community could be that having some really great FREE advice and content removed from the Internet… forever!  As quick as a mind flayer sucking out a startled Wizard’s brain, the thoughts and ideas of any number of D&D bloggers, as well as posters on D&D forums, could be simply be devoured and lost, never to return, all from a single complaint about copyright infringement – whether or not the complaint is even valid, I might add!

The Internet has done some great things for the online D&D community, and it has grown and expanded into a wondrous tapestry of ideas, advice, and new fan-generated conten,t which many of us reference and use in our D&D games week after week, year after year.  Sites like Sly Fourish, Critical Hits, EN World, and my own humble Neuroglyph Games, just to name a few, have been writing advice blogs and content articles for the benefit of the online D&D community now for years.  But it takes only a single complaint – valid or invalid – under SOPA, and all those blogs and articles from a site will be gone, possibly never to return.

Could the online D&D community really continue to thrive and grow if its Internet supporters and fansites start vanishing unjustly?

Legislative Dungeons & Dragons

Of course, some might call my ideas paranoid, because even under such a draconic law, even where a single infringement of copyrighted material can amount to a felony and jail time, no one would ever target a D&D fansite, right?

I’ve thought long and hard about that since SOPA first came to my attention, when I realized that it was being railroaded through Congress, and now has the potential to be signed into law.  And at first, I simply dismissed my concerns, because we D&D bloggers are just publishing fansites for our favorite game – and really, come on now, who could possibly want to shut us down?

But then I realized that there are plenty of “who’s” that could want to shut a D&D blogsite down.  In fact, I had the realization that anyone with an axe to grind could potentially do it, and all the hard work, all the hours of writing and content, could simply be removed from the Internet on a whim and a bad attitude.

For example, let’s say that a D&D 4E blogger writes an article criticizing a facet of the Edition Wars, and makes a snarky off-hand comment about Pathfinder or D&D 3.5.  (Editor’s Note: For sake of this argument, it could work either way – could be a snarky comment about 4E from a Pathinder fan too.)  And let’s say an angry fan decides they don’t like the snarkiness, and decides to make a complaint, alleging a copyright violation… and BAM!  That blog and the entire blogsite are annihilated from the Internet like a minion caught in a fireball!

Don’t think it could happen?  Have you read how vicious some of the Edition Wars fights have been on various forums?

Ok, so, how about if a D&D blogger uses a picture from a D&D book as an illustration in an article supporting the game, and maybe even promotes buying a particular book and using it to run D&D campaigns better?  But then let’s say that sometime down the road, that blogger writes an article criticizing Hasbro and WotC for their corporate decisions, such as laying off popular writers at Christmastime, or for rolling out D&D 5E in a crappy way.  Under SOPA, all it takes is an anonymous tip about that image on the fansite… and BAM!  The site disappears, and the blogger is facing a possible felony charge for daring to disparage D&D’s corporate paradigm.

And what about D&D product reviews?

To date, I’ve personally written a couple hundred reviews of D&D, Pathfinder, and other roleplaying game supplements, not to mention fantasy books, fantasy movies, and a few video games.  I’ve always tried to be fair in my reviews, but I don’t always give the product a glowingly positive review, and in a few rare cases, have had to be fairly honest and not recommend the product for one reason or another.  I know for a fact – which I can state based upon the angry emails I’ve gotten after my post – that some publishers and authors have found my review assessments “harsh” and “unfair”.  In fact, in one case, I was actually accused of having some strange negative agenda to undermine the GSL community of publishers – and this charge was leveled at me despite the vast number of positive reviews of 3PP materials I’ve written over the past couple years, and that I myself am a GSL D&D 3PP publisher and proud of it!

But all it would take would be some angry publisher or author to take retribution for a bad review, and make one complaint about my site, or about EN World where I publish many of my reviews now…  and BAM!  No more offending review, no more Neuroglyph Games, and no more EN World!

I guess that would be one way to get rid of a bad review, huh?

Battling the Demon

If these scenarios sound a little paranoid, and even a little frightening, well I don’t think you can blame me too much.  In its current form, SOPA represents the single-greatest attack on Free Speech that this country has ever seen, and it will affect not only how we enjoy our online social networks, such as Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and Flickr, but also how we choose to express ourselves on the web on fansites and blogsites like the ones we have for our favorite roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons.

With the wording in the bill so vague and open to interpretation, and the frustrating lack of understanding of the Internet that the Congressmen who are behind the bill have – by their own admission – SOPA could be used in so many mean and petty ways to undermine Free Speech in this country, and to affect us all on every level that we use the Internet.  (see this Washington Post article about the level of Internet ignorance in the Judiciary hearings.) Certainly, if this law gets passed, it will make bloggers and online pundits from all areas – including D&D – think twice about what they want post, worry who they might offend, and most likely will censor themselves in fear of the repercussions for posting their opinions on the blogsite.  In fact, it would not surprise me if many blogsites –whether D&D fansite or a fansite of any other type – simply disappeared if SOPA passes, from their owners and authors fearing possible felony charges for making an unknowing copyright infraction while trying to support their favorite hobby or cause.

If this isn’t what a degradation of Free Speech looks like, then I don’t know what does!

So fellow D&D gamers, I urge you to write an email to your Congressmen, or post a tweet, or do anything else you can think of to raise awareness of the dangers of SOPA to your family, friends, and fellow gamers!  We might just be gamer nerds to the rest of the world, but we all have a voice, and SOPA threatens every one of us, nerd or not, who enjoys online content, and uses the Internet to interface with our D&D community.

SOPA-Trial expired 2

If there was ever a Chaotic Evil monster worth pulling out your +5 Holy Avenger against, it’s SOPA – don’t let this Evil from Washington destroy our online D&D gaming community!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

14 Responses to “SOPA: Bane of the D&D Blogger?

  1. beej! says:

    What bothers me is that I’m not an American, yet somehow this bill, if passed into law, will manage to directly affect my Internet lifestyle. If it works how you say it works, then any or all of my D&D blogs (and even my non-D&D blog!) will be threatened with heavy censorship by this presumptuous US legislation – all because I use a US-based blogging service!

    I don’t know how I could help, not being American. But for all our sakes, I hope your country gets to pound some sense into your Congress before it’s too late.

  2. Matthew says:

    A very interesting article concerning some legislation that is targeted at copyright infringement but will likely have interesting side effects. Being in Australia, we tend here to have pretty archaic copyright laws .. esp concerning online copyright infringement.

    One question Michael: Do you think the SOPA if it actually makes it to law, will force bloggers to blog outside the us websites? (ie set up a blog in say Italy or Greece ) for example. Obviously the law couldnt extend to foreign websites and websites hosted outside of America.. could it?

  3. Fuzzy says:

    Great article! Any suggestions how someone could protect themselves and their sites from such “copyright infringement” claims? Protecting against a ticked off jerk is probably useless but protection from the others?

    Keep up the good fight.

  4. Ben says:

    Leo on Twit said it best, “You can’t regulate bits. As soon as something becomes digital, you can’t stop its piracy.” Amen – so frustrating that people (and elected officials) don’t get that.

  5. @beej! – yea, I know what you mean, and it would be a shame to see bloggers living in fear of making a mistake that could score them a felony conviction. I certainly hope we can make Congress see sense, and how ambiguous legislation is so very dangerous to the “little guy”.
    @Mathew – I know I have certainly considered moving my website out of the country over the legislation, but I am hoping it will simply never make it through Congress. Honestly, even overseas, my DNS could get blocked if the Neuroglyph Games site is accused of being a pirate haven, so moving it out of US servers really won’t fix the dangers intrinsic to this law.
    @Fuzzy – thank you, I’m glad you liked the article! I’m not sure how much one can protect oneself from infringement accusations, short of removing all images, music links, video links, or anything else that could be construed as pirated. It would make for a pretty blah appearance, leaving just words behind, and I hope it never comes to that.
    @Ben – exactly! You can’t regulate bits, and the fact that Congress is trying to do so, in the most draonic and ham-handed way possible makes my blood boil. But as a very good friend told me: this bill will never stand up to a challenge in the Courts, and that is assuming it will pass through the Democrat-controlled Senate, and get signed into law by a very rights oriented Democratic president. Chances are good that it will never become law, but even the small chance of a bill like this becoming part of our Internet culture is simply too great to ignore, and must be fought with absolute resolve!

  6. James says:

    After this passes, I plan to make complaints about piracy by members of Congress who voted for this bill. Once their own campaign sites go down, they’ll think differently.

  7. AJLC says:

    I will agree with you to a point. Insofar as you’re beholden to the commercially available web hosts and google for your hosting and advertising you’re pretty screwed. In that case I’ll just say that every bill presented has legalese in it designed to lessen it’s worst possible outcome, and that language never makes the media.

    But lets just say you absolutely wanted to avoid getting your site taken offline. A student with access to Microsoft Student Advantage, a reasonably fast computer and some general know how could.

    1. Back up his site, subscriber data and content.
    2. Cancel his hosting contract and web URL
    3. Get a new URL
    4. Put up a new DNS and web server.
    5. Point the DNS server to a DNS root outside of the US.
    6. Buy a new URL similar to the one he had for less than 10 bucks.
    7. Upload the site to his new, owned host
    8. Email everyone on the subscriber list
    9. Advertise some other way than google, but google will crawl it anyway.

    Yes the site would be slow, but at least the message is out there. I refuse to believe that beyond enworld or other forum sites there are more than 10-20 people on the blog at most at any one time ever, and most of the content is text.

    Be afraid of things you know you’re going to be affected by or things with no work around.

  8. Jeremy D says:

    With your permission I would like to send a link to your article along with following message to my elected representatives… I am not posting this under any of my usual pseudonyms because I wish to make a clear statement of my displeasure that the representatives of the people would be so willfully ignorant and blindly follow fear mongering lobbyists off this civil rights abuse cliff.

    If you agree, I likewise give my permission for others to copy my text and modify it as appropriate for the intended recipient.

    =====

    My dear elected congressional representative,

    I thought you would appreciate another point view on the Stop Online Piracy Act, especially one coming from a small self-publisher who has already dealt with theft of his intellectual property. This is not a big record label or major cooperate entity, but an individual who has to fight his own legal battles.

    http://www.neuroglyphgames.com/sopa-bane-of-the-dd-blogger

    The Dungeons and Dragons brand is owned by Wizard of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, one of the larger toy companies in the United States.

    SOPA goes so far as to impact virtually every American that has even partial ties to the Internet activity and commerce. When you or a relative does anything that involves the Internet I want to you stop and determine if could even remotely be a violation of SOPA. Please be objective in this, as it is possible someone you know has done something in the past that would be a violation of SOPA if it passes. Possibly something as innocuous as singing a cover to well know but still Copyrighted song, such as “Happy Birthday to You”, and posting it to Facebook (or a private blog) for the birthday boy/girl to see.

    http://www.unhappybirthday.com/

    ==== (comments not being sent)
    Ya that unhappy birthday part is real. Just singing happy birthday and putting it an MP3 file on a site would be enough to get it shut down. Imagine getting it subversively inserted into the different online advertiser systems, like a “congratulations, you’ve won” ad. A troll could take down the majority of the Internet in one fell swoop. What an unhappy birthday it would be indeed.

  9. skaveng3r says:

    Similar to your ideas of an edition-wars-panties-in-a-wad-type thing, I can see a techy freedom-activist or somesuch making complaints about every site out there taking down the whole of the internet in protest… It’ll probably be possible to do it with a little script on a bot net… or am I being even more paranoid?…..

  10. Jaalenn says:

    This is rediculous. Passing something like this would not only undermine Free-Speech on the internet, but also start the process for some to start prying at our other freedoms as well. SOPA will effectively drive another nail into the coffin of our Constitution. Out of curiousity, do you mind if I link this page in any post I might make with regards to the content?

  11. @Jeremy D – appreciate the shoutout, and I know I have made a bit of hyperbole in my claims about SOPA being the “greatest” threat to Free Speech, but I darned sure know that it is one of the biggest ones that has come along in my lifetime.

    BTW, for those interested in reading more, I found a great piece where Harvard Law School constitutional expert Laurence Tribe believes the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is unconstitutional. He goes into quite a bit of detail in a Legis Memo, explaining where SOPA goes completely wrong. It makes me feel good to see people already gearing up to battle this monster, and I think it will make it more and more unlikely it will ever be signed into law – the tide of opposition is really pushing back hard now!

  12. Nightfire says:

    Might soon be time for me to offer hosting in a different, international jurisdiction.
    It might just take a mass exodus of internet business to other countries to make them wake up. It might be passed into law there but that doesn’t make it a crime here!

  13. George Heichelheim says:

    Sounds like business’s should be against this bill. Imagine an ‘attack’ where the offensive were to make the complaint of copyright infringement – the site is shut down (leagally required) – the business defends itself (but with a cost to do so) – repeat…
    So NOT just gaming, but in general, “Bad law. Very bad law.”

  14. IIsi 50MHz says:

    It’s my understanding that SOPA would require U.S.-based internet providers and DNS servers to block access from anywhere in the U.S. to “offending” sites anywhere in the world (for instance, by modifying DNS records). Also, any source of money for an offending site would be immediately frozen, at least for sources operating with the U.S., so bye-bye ad revenue, bank accounts, credit card accounts…

    If a site with user content from millions of users is reported for one violation, anywhere in the world, POOF! SOPA makes it invisible to U.S. users, without requiring proof. In fact, the site has to /prove/ that no violation occurred. Doesn’t matter that the site can’t possibly check all user material prior to making it available online. And SOPA applies to search engines, too.

    There’s hope, though. If SOPA is passed as anything other than a constitutional amendment, it’s illegal and unenforceable. If they start enforcing it anyway, maybe Americans can get United Nations passports and revoke their U.S. citizenship, as oppressed people. Or just…move to some other country. OK, enough ranting at 4 or 5 AM.

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