U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham co-sponsored the anti-piracy legislation that led to online protests Wednesday from the likes of Wikipedia and Google, but now he's open to altering the controversial bill.
The Protect IP Act, which Graham, R-S.C., voted for in May, and its companion in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Stop Online Piracy Act, have become flashpoints in a long-running battle between the movie and music industries and open Internet advocates.
The big businesses pushing the anti-piracy legislation seemed to have the edge until recently, but the more diffuse tech opposition has fought back, climaxing Wednesday with partial blackouts of heavily trafficked websites.
What comes next is up to lawmakers like Graham, who have come to more fully appreciate the competing virtues of copyright protection and web freedom. In an interview Wednesday, Graham didn't explicitly switch sides, but his support is not as full-throated as his history with PIPA would indicate.
Graham said the opposition to PIPA and SOPA "have raised some really legitimate questions."
"I consider intellectual property real property, but I do believe the content part of the debate has been very resistant to technological changes," he said of the film and recording businesses. "And if this bill can be made better, let's do it."
Graham supports wide and inexpensive distribution of mass media, "but there's got to be a revenue stream or you're going to destroy the creative content providers."
"You're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," he warned.
After flying under the radar for most of last year, the latest legislative effort to combat online piracy began to register in a big way toward the end of last year as the technology community expressed fears about collateral damage.
The climax of that campaign came Wednesday when web users found some of their favorite sites blacked out and featuring links to anti-PIPA/SOPA advocacy.
Proponents of the bills want stronger weapons against the spread of pirated movies and songs, like requiring more policing of search engines and community sharing sites. Those sites worry that the intellectual property owners and federal law enforcement could hammer them for a relatively small percentage of infringing content amid vast quantities of legal material.
Noah Everett, the founder of photo-sharing site Twitpic, knows unauthorized file-sharing is a problem -- Twitpic already gets takedown notices under a previous law and responds to them.
But he is concerned about the possibility that sites like his could be shut down entirely without due process. The Daniel Island entrepreneur's views were echoed by several other Charleston technologists this week.
"Online piracy is an issue to deal with, but this is the wrong way to go about it," he said Wednesday, when Twitpic blocked the logo on its website and linked to anti-SOPA advocacy. "Instead of having such a broad scope about it, they need to be more pinpoint."
Congress has wrestled with how to protect intellectual property rights while maintaining the fundamental openness on the Internet for years. It passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998, which strengthened copyright infringement enforcement mechanisms but limited liability of third-party content hosts.
PIPA targets sites "primarily" dedicated to infringing activity or enabling infringing activity. But it also directs internet service providers, search engines and advertisers to actively steer clear of such sites, by not linking to them or advertising with them. If they do not, the U.S. Department of Justice could penalize them as well.
SOPA, introduced in October, is on hold in committee until next month; PIPA is scheduled for a vote in the Senate next week. Last week three Obama administration officials opposed parts of the bills, and on Wednesday a few of Graham's colleagues, including Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Orrin Hatch, R-Ut., said PIPA needs to be re-evaluated.
Graham said the dispute is as much about money as it is about principles, and he hopes the two sides come to realize their shared interests.
"There's not a noble character in this. This is an economic competition," Graham said. "I think they're going to find a meeting of the minds because they need each other."
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him at twitter.com/kearney_brendan.