Why SOPA and PIPA Should Matter to the Church


A Congressional vote that was scheduled for today for PIPA was cancelled following last week’s online protests. The technology sector has been abuzz with passionate discussion explaining the many problems with SOPA and PIPA, but how will this affect the church, parachurch, and non-profit organizations?

This question was raised in the comments after Seedbed wrote the article Websites “Blackout” to Protest SOPA and PIPA. The ramifications to this legislation are far reaching, and will affect churches in a variety of ways. These bills are lengthy and I highly encourage our readers before continuing to read over our summary found within the aforementioned article.

Already an Established Precedent for Action Against Churches

The idea that churches should be able to circumvent copyright laws was challenged in 2007 when the National Football League cracked down on Fall Creek Baptist Church for hosting a Super Bowl Party. Though the NFL has rescinded from their aggressive stance, they still have very specific rules for hosting a viewing of the game.

However, many are still in violation; the church, parachurch, and non-profit organizations are in desperate need of gaining a firm understanding of copyright law and how it affects their overall ministry goals. Hopefully the following will help provide a clear understanding of how SOPA and PIPA will affect many organizations and faith communities.

The Trouble with Definitions

When evaluating criticisms and support of the bill, two phrases are brought up repeatedly: Domestic Internet Site and Foreign Internet Site. Though the two terms are apparently self-explanatory, they become convoluted when the line is drawn between the terms.

A church site or non-profit can be run by an organization within the United States, but be considered foreign if the site has a non-domestic domain name or if it has a non-domestic IP address. This becomes confusing very quickly, but two examples of how these definitions fail non-profits may be beneficial:

Websites are like Cell Phones

When churches decide to have a website, two steps are involved before they can launch. They require a domain name, and hosting company. The domain name is what the site is called; think of it like a phone number. Examples of domain names include http://www.AsburySeedbed.com, http://www.southlandchristian.org/, and http://embraceyourcity.com/. If a domain name is like the phone number, then the hosting company would be like the phone company. Dreamhost, Namecheap, and RackSpace are the hosting equivalent to Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Hosting Companies

Hosting companies, like cellphone providers, work behind the scenes connecting people. I have worked with a number of organizations ranging from small startups, non-profits, churches, and large tech-companies. The one thing that all these organizations had in common is they pursued the cheapest, yet most reliable web hosting solution.

Often, these lead organizations choose hosting solutions that are not within the United States. I have often seen the cheapest, most reliable solutions offered by Canadian hosting companies. Organizations choosing these companies would be labeled as a Foreign Internet Site by the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislations.

Domain Names

As stated previously, the domain name is like a phone number. As with phone numbers many organizations choose to select a vanity phone number. Just as Asbury Theological Seminary has a vanity phone number of 1.800.2.ASBURY, they have a vanity short URL to help direct users to specific pages on their website, http://asbury.to. Many church organizations use this type of vanity URLs in combination with Twitter to shorten their links.

A popular vanity URL that you may have run across is http://read.ly. This is powered by youversion, the makers of popular Bible app. In the perspective of the proposed legislation, this service and the short URL of Asbury Theological Seminary would be viewed as foreign sites, because they used domain names from a non-domestic source. (the .to is out of Tonga and the .ly is out of Libya)

A Popular Misconception

It is probably necessary to address one misconception of this proposed legislation. It has been said that churches and non-profits would have nothing to fear, because they are not a site that is operating to serve pirated content. Many churches lack a budget to hire lawyers to filter and sift through all of their content that is posted. When video gets posted onto a website that is inspirational, but contains music that has not been cleared, the church would be in violation of the proposed acts.

This is especially disconcerting and alarming considering the following Christian groups and organizations are supporting these bills:

  • Christian Music Trade Association
  • Church Music Publishers’ Association
  • EMI Christian Music Group
  • Gospel Music Association
  • And many others

Imagine a church website being blacklisted because the church staff was simply inspired by a video they found and was attempting to share it. Though this is technically copyright infringement, the solution to this problem should be an investment in education about copyright, as opposed to blacklisting and prosecuting websites.

Should the Church Break the Law?

A majority of members of the church, parachurch, and non-profit organizations agree that breaking the law is something that church members should refrain from doing. However, what occurs in churches on Sundays across America is breaking the same copyright laws that caused an international team of prosecutors and police to prosecute the filesharing site Megaupload. Public performances of copyrighted works are considered illegal by United States and international law, unless explicit permission is granted by the copyright holder. From the government’s perspective there is no difference between singing a song in church without explicit permission to do so and selling pirated DVDs on the street corner.

Even the song Happy Birthday cannot be sung within a church without breaking the law, because this would be violating the public performance clause. The United States government defines a public space as, “a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/circ92.pdf)

As one staff member, who has dealt with copyright concerns in the past, wrote to me in consultation with this article:

Under copyright law, the plaintiff is presumed correct by default, and it’s up to the accused infringer to prove his or her innocence. There aren’t good-faith exemptions, for the most part. This means that if you read a long quote in one of your sermons without getting explicit permission, you’ve broken the law; even if it could be considered fair use, you are in the wrong until you can demonstrate to a court that you’re right.

What concerns do you have about the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills? Are your church, parachurch, and non-profit organizations talking about it?