Wikipedia is shutting down all English language sites starting tomorrow at midnight DC time to protest SOPA and PIPA, the Senate version of the SOPA act. Though SOPA has been withdrawn, PIPA could still get a floor vote in the Senate on the 24th. And even though the DNS blacklist provision has been removed from both bills, there are still a number of ugly remnants, as explained by the EFF.
If you want a concrete example of why Wikipedia is reacting so forcefully to this legislation, which would essentially shut down a site if it hosted content that the rights holder asserted violated copyright, look at this picture I used in a post on Sunday. It’s a scan from a 1944 issue of Life Magazine that is still under copyright. As you can see if you follow the link, Wikipedia has an elaborate rationale explaining why the use of that picture is fair use, and those reasons sound compelling to me. If they weren’t compelling to Time/Warner, the copyright holder, Time/Warner could issue a DMCA takedown notice and Wikipedia would have to remove the offending content. As long as Wikipedia isn’t making money from the use of the copyrighted material, is unaware of the infringement, and responds to the takedown notice, they can’t be held liable for the infringement. In other words, sites like Wikipedia have “safe harbor” under current copyright law, but they face the threat of complete shutdown under the proposed new law, if they’re a foreign site. That’s what’s so radical about this change, and why it’s provoked this response by Wikipedia.
By the way, thanks to the 1998 extension of the length of copyright, Time/Warner will be able to have rights to that image until at least 2039. Copyright extension plus SOPA/PIPA shows how far we’ve come from the original purpose of copyright, which was to give authors rights over their creations during their lifetime to spur creativity.