SparkFun and Censorship


Today a lot of sites are blacked out in some form or another. Here's a quick list of the big ones (of which I'm aware):

and even our pals at Adafruit have a banner.

They're doing so in protest of SOPA and PIPA - two bills in congress that would have a dramatic influence over the openness and freedom of the internet.

To understand how these bills work to learn for yourself why they're harmful, check out this Reddit blog post and educate yourself.

It's been hotly debated over the past few months (this week especially) whether SparkFun should get involved - in any way - at a company level. Without a track record of being politically outspoken as an organization, we didn't want to set precedents that would put us on the slippery slope to endorsing candidates or championing issues well outside of our sphere. We're a business, not a super PAC.

But SOPA and PIPA are different. These bills are about censorship, plain and simple. Using our imaginations, perhaps if SparkFun comes out against them there will be those who think we shouldn't have or those who think we're doing it too late or those who think we aren't doing enough or those who vehemently support this legislation. Regardless of the discussion on our blog, tutorials, product pages, or forum, we've always opposed censoring dissent. I mean, just look at all the vitriol heaped on us for how we did Free Day this year! Every negative comment preserved for the world to see, with pride.

We don't want to censor them because we believe in free expression on our homepage as well as the entire internet ecosystem wherein we conduct our business and earn our livelihood. That's exactly why SparkFun opposes this legislation - it risks widespread censoring of the entire internet including the SparkFun home page. The internet has been kind to us and now she's under attack by legislators and special interests who don't understand how it works. SparkFun has decided to take an official position on the matter and stands with our fellow citizens of the internet by opposing SOPA and PIPA!

Today we encourage you to contact your senator and contact your representative to voice your opposition to these bills and urge them to vote them down.

Now, it wasn't easy to arrive at this decision at the organizational level. Taking a stance as an organization can get you into trouble, after all, and it took some internal debate to get us here.

I would like to tell a story about one example that helped. I've been struggling to put into words just how these bills would affect us directly. We have a lot of user generated content in the form of comments on blog posts, tutorials, products, and the forum but I have yet to see anything that is a clear example of potential copyright infringement.

And then it hit me.

Back in '09 SPARC International, makers of a specific line of high-powered servers, sent us a cease and desist for infringing on their trademark, as we are SparkFun and make small embedded circuits (that's kinda like servers, I guess). We posted the C&D letter. The internet, having always had our back, came rallying to our aid. They even got a bit zealous in our favor and we had to politely request they discontinue threatening violence against the law firm.

The request from SPARC International (SI) was quite straightforward: "immediately cease and desist from using the term SPARKFUN ... immediately take steps to transfer the sparkfun.com domain name to SI." Obviously this would spell the immediate end to our entire business.

Now, SPARC had to operate solely on the threat of a law suit. Should that have come to pass (it didn't), SparkFun would have had the right to due process and nothing would change until a court of law, wherein we had the chance to defend ourselves, found us liable.

Now, trademarks and copyrights are different things. However, let's play out a similar scenario in a world where SOPA and/or PIPA are a reality. A plaintiff (like SI) could make a claim that SparkFun.com is infringing on their copyright in some form (anything from a product we designed that supposedly rips off their copyrighted design to a link in a comment that points to supposedly copyrighted material). Said plaintiff could take their claim to the attorney general for our judicial district, and solely at the discretion of that government official an injunction could be filed against us.

Without due process we could find ourselves looking at an order from the attorney general to cease operations. Failure to compliance allows for the plaintiff and attorney general to go after our financial transaction providers - Authorize.net and PayPal - to shut down the flow of cash into our business. As an extreme example, sparkfun.com would yield a message from the attorney general describing how we have been shut down. The legislation strikes at the openness and freedom of the internet, but moreover, it strikes at businesses, like us, that live and die by the uncensored web we call home.

***

Get involved. Oppose SOPA and PIPA.


Comments 90 comments

  • So many people see you guys as a leader in open sharing of both hardware and software in hobby electronics and keeping silent about these issues would seem to go against the spirit of it all. Glad to see Sparkfun’s voice on the issue.

  • I’m not an US citizen but I fully support your action. Because this is a world-wild subject and the same thing could also happen in Europe if “we” don’t care.

      1. I wish more people realized how important issues like this are and how it’s no just somebody else’s problem. It starts out that way and then we all have to deal with the consequences, both intended and unintended.
  • I applaud your decision to support free speach, open ideas, and due process. Yet another reason to support the Sparkfun team. Keep up the good work!

  • After spending the morning looking at sites that are trying to raise awareness of SOPA/PIPA, I came here just to buy some stuff. What a pleasant surprise to see SparkFun also supporting this cause! Your previous experience with attempted abuse of property rights gives you a specific and convincing example of the dangers inherent in SOPA/PIPA. Thanks for this cogent explanation and for all the debate time that must have preceded your writing.

  • It scary. Congress is so far out of touch. They don’t seem to understand or care that these ( potential) big campaign donors are NOT the majority voice of their constituents, just the majority for their campaign funding.

    • Look at the founder of Reddit said on CNBC:

      Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian on CNBC: “Why is it that when Republicans and Democrats need to solve the budget and the deficit, there’s deadlock, but when Hollywood lobbyists pay them $94 million dollars to write legislation, people from both sides of the aisle line up to co-sponsor it?”

      Quite sad that our government went from being awesome when it was first developed to greed and corporate control.

    • Being an Australian, where the political systems operate quite a bit differently, I do have this to say about politics in general.

      All governments are so far out of touch a major overhaul of all systems is required.

      Firstly, ban all lobbyists. No single group should be allowed to put this kind of pressure on elected officials. Special Interest Groups should be allowed to address the elected officials in some kind of open forum, but any decisions to be made should be left to the people at large, through the officials they elect.

      Next, Limit an elected official’s time in office to no more than two terms, that way they don’t get comfortable in the job, they aren’t there to make a career, they are there to represent the people of their electorate. It will also ensure a fresh infusion of people to bring new ideas and blood into the government process.

      Banning campaign fundraising is impossible, but set a fixed limit to the amount of funds that can be raised and used on a campaign, and a limit of one million dollars is just insane, no person needs that much money to get elected. Also ban all donations from special interest groups. All donations must be from a private citizen or the candidates own party. When a donation is made, that person must then declare the amount of the donation and to whom the donation is made when approaching the government to speak about an issue, those officials are then required to abstain from voting on the issue.

      Elected officials must then also report to their electorates which way they intend to vote on an issue no later than 60 days before the vote, to give the people in that electorate time to contact their official to voice their concern about the way they intend to vote, if the electorate largely disagrees with the voting preference then a simple majority of voters disagreeing will then require the elected official to overturn their preference and vote with the electorate majority.

      There is so much more I can think of to make Government a true democracy but I don’t want to flood the forum.

      Government is for the people, not for the rich and powerful.

    • It’s just messed up, because in a government such as ours (US), where elected officials are the voice of the people, and they are funded by big corporations, they take the side of the donating corporations, since that is their capitol flow. They practically ignore their constituents, which was the job they were elected to do in the first place!

  • I worked at a software company that constantly put up political party vote signs. It bothered me a lot.

    This is bipartisan manure though.

    Kudos for taking the issue seriously and appropriately.

  • In 5 years…I’m sorry I can’t help you fix your circuit. I know how to fix it but I obtained the knowledge from a copyrighted textbook (or website).

  • Is there any way for non-US citizens to lend their voice?

  • Whirlpool is claiming “lose of income” because people are fixing their own dryers. Big corporation want nothing more than to put a stop to DIY sites and Open Source anything.

    Take time to educate yourself!

    • +1 Many companies take similar stances. Someone needs to inform the world.

    • I am a “fit it myself” kind of guy. I have repaired our 50" brand name projection HDTV more than once. I paid for the service manual (on-line) and ordered the replacement parts (on-line) and the TV still works today (despite the cajoling of my wife to get a new one). What’s the crime in that? Isn’t that how it always worked before the internet? Ingenuity served those well willing to take the risk of breaking something permanently?

      Maybe big companies should go back to making products that work for more than the warranty period instead of trying to keep up with “seasonal fashions”.

      Just my $0.02

    • Citation needed!!!!! I hope you come back and see this, I know I would really like to see it and I bet others would too!

      Hmm… If what you say is true then it makes those adds with the ‘repair guy’ quite interesting…

  • I think this sort of thing is fine, as long as you don’t start making public statements or contributions supporting or attacking completely unrelated topics.

    It’s just bad business to get involved with topics that don’t directly impact you - like Sprint or Ben & Jerry’s weird anti-gun political stances.

    So, yeah, I agree - and thanks for making a stand.

    • I think this sort of thing is fine, as long as you don’t start making public statements or contributions supporting or attacking completely unrelated topics.

      Yeah, like the post indicates, we spent a lot of time talking this through internally. People at SparkFun hold a wide range of views on the usual American political hot-buttons, and I don’t think any of us are interested in making (most of) them matters of official policy. This is a for-profit business, not a political party, pressure group, etc.

      That said, there was broad consensus inside the walls that this directly threatens both our livelihoods and the shared values that bring people (customers and employees both) here in the first place. Much as it’s often for the best if businesses stay out of political affairs (we wouldn’t have legislation like SOPA to contend with if they did), no organization exists in a political vacuum.

  • As always, you’ve reassured me that this is a fine place to do business with.

    Keep on keeping on Sparkfun.

  • I just want to say how much I appreciate Sparkfun taking a stand on this. Just another reason why I will forever be a supporter of you and yours.

  • Ballsy move. Well done, Sparkfun!

    • Meh… Look who Sparkfun customers are… I suspect not acknowledging this subject would have brought the greater risk of alienating their customers. Not to put them down or anything… it looks sincere to me!

      • Keep in mind that everyone who works at SFE is of the same mindset as our customers. We did this for a number of reasons, the most important being that it’s important to us.

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  • Something parallel to this happened to guitar-tab websites a few years back (free websites that allow users to post/share their un-official interpretation of how to play particular songs). All of my favorite guitar sites were down for a few days; each had on their home page a copy of the threatening letter they received with accusations of copyright infringment.

    Imagine if we allow this to happen, we could lose some of the most creative and useful attributes the internet has to offer. Not to mention losing companies like Sparkfun to bigger (more profit-minded) corporations out there who could use this as a tactic to hurt the competition.

    It’s not easy to understand the consequences of these bills in their entirety by reading, but the blog.reddit link gives good insight.

  • Open source and free distribution of ideas/intellectual property are great. But I doubt we’d have iPhones if Apple wasn’t able to protect it’s designs and intellectual property. I’m not big into movies and music and I’m not a gifted author, so I’ve never written anything anyone would want to publish. But I think actors (and the studios that produce their movies), composers/musicians (and the labels that help them get their work distributed), and writers of all types (and the publishing companies that make their work available to those who still like to read paper and ink) should have some sort of protection from the rampant piracy of their intellectual property that has exploded with the growth of the internet (at least some protection for some reasonable period of time). If SOPA and PIPA are not the solution, what is? SOPA and PIPA wouldn’t be moving through Congress if someone didn’t think they were a step in the right direction. Rather than just simply urging your Representatives and Senators to reject these bills, how about if all the smart folks that use this site suggest a better solution(s)?

    • One strong contender is the OPEN Act. It’s not perfect, but it strives to clearly define infringing parties without resorting to vague language that is ripe for abuse. It also emphasizes due process instead of the guilty-until-proven-innocent approach of SOPA/PIPA and has some modicum of checks against abuse of the law to take down innocent websites.

      • It’s also worth pointing out that existing legislation, such as the much-derided DMCA, already provides strong enforcement mechanisms for rightsholders, and treads perilously close to subverting basic due process.

        There isn’t much solid evidence (to put it mildly) that “more of the same but a lot less bound by due process and technical realism” will move us towards an economic model that’s less disruptive for people who do creative work.

    • I guess it depends on how you view “piracy.” At least shown from the indie game developer arena, you want people to pirate your game. You want people to play your game, which would generate a lot of marketing (word-of-mouth advertising). From this, a lot of people started to buy the game! A great example is Minecraft, some people knew about it and played it, but if it wasn’t for piracy (I’m speculating here, I don’t have any numbers), and the marketing that it drove, it wouldn’t be as popular.

      The best argument I can come up with is, piracy is a lost sale, not stealing. Stealing means, the product was theirs, and you took the product, meaning they don’t have that product anymore.

      In today’s age of digital content, the old copyright system is fundamentally flawed. This is what the Pirate Party is about, reforming an old system into the new age, and it has gotten quite a bit of movement.

      I’m all for protecting people’s intellectual property, and the due process to defend it, but SOPA/PIPA/OPEN are not the right way. We need to educate the politicians how the real world works before any proper regulation occurs.

      • I appreciated Tim Bray’s take on this:

        The activity that the legislation tries (futilely) to prevent is when people who are too cheap or too broke to pay small amounts of money for digital goods under the (often stupid, insulting, and clumsy) terms and conditions imposed by media companies resort to the use of sleazy, inconvenient, illicit distributors to get at those digital goods without paying.

        This is not piracy.

        Maybe it’s a problem. I personally don’t think so, in the era of iTunes and eBooks and Google Music, but that’s a complex argument around business models and intellectual-property regulation, and I understand that reasonable people can reasonably disagree with me. It is a common political technique to place one’s opponents at a disadvantage by associating them with a damaging label, and that’s what “piracy” is being used for in this context.

        But it’s not piracy.

        I’m not sure that the overall intellectual property argument is one we need to have here - personally I’ve spent so much time having the discussion over the last 15 years of online life that I’m pretty burned on it. But there’s a major question of proportionality here, and as a society we need to work on addressing the economics of things in an age of super-low-cost digital replication without allowing the issue to become a Trojan horse for the erosion of basic civil and market freedoms.

    • I understand your concerns, but we can’t recklessly pass laws that can and will put an end to our freedoms and rights under the pretense of “it’s a step in the right direction”.

      Pass it now and fix it later process does not work.

      • I don’t disagree. “Pass it now and fix it later” gave us ObamaCare.

        I guess my main point got lost in a long post - offer better solutions rather than just rejecting/protesting the current offering.

        An example – my biggest frustration with the Occupy Wall Street folks was they were simply protesting what they believe are unjust structures within our capitalist system (misguided or not). I never saw any rational/logical/practical solutions to what they believe are problems. Yes, they made demands, but those demands were not solutions, they were simply a laundry list of wants.

        • Until a better solution comes out, I would rather they did nothing than do what they have now.

        • It is our elected officials' job to listen to our wants and needs and translate that into workable solutions. A protest is by definition speaking out against something, it doesn’t have to provide an alternate.

    • We might have iPhones without protective legislation, but if Apple had successfully defended all of its innovations against any infringement, we wouldn’t have Android; we wouldn’t have ever seen Windows.

      • Then again, not many of us would be complaining about that last item… oh wait, off-topic.

        Stop SOPA/PIPA. :)

  • One thing I love about SparkFun is that its a very profitable business.

    While being a practical example of the advantages of open sourcing hardware and software, you guys remain in the very politically neutral position of making honest money.

    I find such a position well suited to deliver a useful view on these issues, and thank you for providing a careful and cogent argument.

  • “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” – Albert Einstein

  • If this gets passed, you’ll get to see things like this:

    “Hey guys check out this funny clip on youtube from this movie i saw. LOL”

    or just this

    █████████████████████████████████████████████████████

  • Thanks for showing your support here. These are scary pieces of legislation, and I think the public needs to be made aware of them. By the way for those interested Reddit has a nice simple link to sign the petition opposing the bills.

  • Removed.

  • Every site I’ve visited today has some sort of black out. But Google is the best… according to W|A, they get >500 million page views per day, some of which has to be a congressperson or senator… I laugh to myself when I think of this.

  • So I clicked on the Make link, and hit play - and got an ad for eHarmony.

    Really - we’re taking this so seriously that we’re pimping on-line Romance?

    • If we don’t take it seriously we will become another North Korea. Yes - this is VERY serious.

    • If you’re talking about the video on the MakeZine.com page, you really can’t blame Sparkfun or Make for that. The ad is likely inserted by the video site (UStream) that is hosting the video stream.

  • Removed by poster

  • It would show a lot more if these site did a lot more time than one day. Just go ahead and show how our schools will suffer from one month of no wikipedia. The foundation of our being in this day in age is being shaken by legislators. Information should be free because it makes us all more globally connected and informed. A world wide revolution is about to happen, and we will prevail.

    • Maybe. I think that it is possible, though, to have a very healthy respect for intellectual property and still oppose this stuff. The problem, clearly, is that giving anyone the power to shut down a site without due process is just asking for trouble. We have a lot of very confused legislation, I think, when it comes to being able to literally charge property for crimes (most forfeiture laws applied in organized crime cases are like that) while not having anyone advocate for the property.

      I love open source stuff, but even more so in the context of a society that will vigorously pursue intellectual property claims if the creator reserves the rights to the IP. It makes it an even more admirable gesture. Making it the norm is not necessary, and will dissuade some people from creating things. Information should belong to the creator. If they choose to free it, I applaud and support it. If not, I decide whether it is worth paying for without knowing all I could. Sometimes the answer is yes.

      Wishing for, or cheering on, revolution is imprudent, because ‘we’ almost never prevail. Some elite does, and the position of ordinary folks gets worse. There are counter-examples. But for every American Revolution, there are dozens of Reigns of Terror or Killing Fields also lurking. Freedom from coercion, for us ordinary people, against those with tons of money, is what we really need. Patents and copyrights have their place. So does open source. Let it be done by choice, not by the tyranny of the moneyed class nor the mob.

  • Puff…Very opposed SOPA here…I am tech for many web power communities.

  • ok would your tutorials on how to take apart and modify different products also fall under the SOPA, because that is there product and there ideas.

    but my $0.02 is that yes congress is way out of line with both bills but yes i agree something does need to be done about piracy, if you own something and you want to make sure it is yours put an ID on it, vehicals have VINs, why not let the producers figure out there own way insted of going to mommy or daddy, when the bully at school stole your lunch you want to mommy and daddy, but when someone steels your idea you have to go to court, not wait for them to confess.

  • Quite simply, anyone who has researched these proposed bills knows exactly how badly they are written and how terribly they would actual enforce the piracy laws already in place and most importantly how unfairly they would impact every internet user. So I will leave it at this, we applaud you SparkFun, thank you.

  • Just an FYI, Craigslist started blasting about this last week. They are being threatened apparently by Monster cable makers because too many people are “re-selling” there old cables on there or something??!! I took action last week after reading all their detailed literature on it.

  • I want to remind everyone of the main purpose of the protest by all the companies and sites–to encourage Americans to write and/or call their representative. You may not think it makes a difference, but I read once that every letter a congressman receives they figure represents at least 10,000 voters. If you believe in this issue, please, make the effort to contact your representative and express your view. We are still supposed to have a representative form of government in this country. Make them listen and respond, or accept the consequences for what they do for themsevles in the name of money and power. And if your representative votes for this–make your voice heard again by writing him before election time, and explaining why you are voting for his opponent. If he votes against it, and he maintains a track record you approve of, write him again before election time and let him know why you WILL be voting for him. Carrot and stick.

  • Short version, and why opposing it (and similar legislation in other countries) is of utmost importance:

    SOPA is an attempt to establish a mandatory technical infrastructure for complete internet censorship using copyright law enforcement as a trojan.

  • It’s amazing to see people speaking out in the voice of freedom; whether it is speech, the right to share information, or simply the right to choose whether or not to wear your seatbelt (protection against self? anybody?). Keep your voices strong! Respect!

  • I stopped going to the voting booth years ago when I realized that lobbyists run the show, not you nor I.

  • My personal site is also in blackout mode. Slashdot (for whom I work) also blacked out out logo for the day, and posted a special anti SOPA/PIPA story in the number 1 position on the site all day.

  • This is a post to publicly apologize to the sparkfun members from outside the US… yes our politions are a bunch of idiots for trying to push such a bill through. However, most citizen’s of this country are of reasonable intelligence and are not any way, shape, or form as rediculous as our representatives make us out to be. I’m sure most of us would be proud to say “our representatives are working hard to fix a busted economy;” but, sadly this is not the case… instead all we can say is our congressional body is working hard on padding their pockets by pushing a bill that some high paying lobbyist wanted!

  • Since I’m not an American citizen, I’m not sure what – if anything – I could do to help. It does bother me, though, that this legislation could have such a world-wide impact.

    I applaud your decision to keep your website up. While I understand the thinking behind the outfits that blacked out their sites, it seems to me that they’re hurting their supporters more than dissuading legislators.

    Ultimately, there’s only one good way to stop software piracy: don’t buy stolen goods. Thieves can’t prosper if nobody does business with them.

  • From what I have read it seems that within hours of bills such as these passing a chunk of the net will be dead, within a month or two, 6 at most, I wonder if most of it will be gone?

    If companies such as Sparkfun, which rely on the ‘net for most of their business, were forced to close I wonder what the un-employment rate will be?

    Sad state of affairs :(

  • www.4chan.com blackout

    • Umm… Does that actually help matters? Thanks for the info though. Now we know what is going on when the 4chan crowd gets bored and leave their mother’s basements tonight. I might have mistaken it for the zombie apocalypse!

      The sun is going down. I better get home to my family quick!

  • https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction/


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