Who profits from online piracy?

ATT ad above our streamed/pirated film.

Although I’ve worked in the journalism/media field for some 25  years, I began this blog in my capacity as the co-producer/co-director of a recently released independent film “And Then Came Lola” in an attempt to raise awareness with regard to a disturbing trend I’ve discovered with regard to online piracy.

While it’s almost a given that any creative work will become the victim of piracy in this day in age, I wanted to issue an alert to artists/writer/musicians about another, and is some ways, more disturbing tangential issue involving film piracy.

One day, One Forum, One Post-Dozens of Download Links. Click the photo for more.

In the process of scouring the web for the thousands of illegal download links and online streams of our film (as of 11/29/10 more than 30,000) I quickly discovered that various, theoretically legit companies, seemed to be (indirectly) generating income through the placement advertising on websites featuring streams and download links to pirated films.  In addition, and most  troubling,  is that fact these ads generate income for  operators of these pirate websites and massive profits for ad providers ($2.06 billion this past quarter for the likes of Google via its AdSense program).

The nature of the advertising varies, but I was dismayed to discover that the ads were not limited to cheesy online gaming sites, etc.  Rather they include a number of legit companies like Sony, Radio Shack, Pixar, Porsche, ATT, Chase, Network Solutions, Auto-Zone and even Netflix (particularly ironic since they carry our film).  The list of advertisers goes on and on. It’s the same situation, if not worse for other films.  Here’s an example of Google ads on a streamed version of the new release “The Last Airbender.“)

This page with illegal downloads link LOLA has Google ads, Network Solutions and ironically an ad for Brooks Institute.

This dubious connection to piracy is not limited  to the companies whose ads appear on various pirate sites.    Even more problematic are those companies, like Google (via AdSense), that  generate their own robust revenue stream by providing the interface for the pirate-site pop-up ads themselves.   In this equation everyone,  except the actual content creators,  make money from this theft.

I made this short video of my experience with one website that featured links to my film and Google ads to demonstrate just how insidious this online black market has become.

Online ad providers include  web behemoth Google (via AdSense), DoubleClick (also owned by Google), Clicksor, Pubmatic and smaller companies like  Image Space Media. All offer web pirates the means to generate income from ads on web pages displaying pirated content, while simultaneously generating income for their company.  This tacit financial support of these “pirate” sites serves to encourage and sustain them.

Note Google pop-up ad that overlays window. Below is the actual illegal streamed version of our entire film.

One could argue that the companies that provide the ads, as well as the companies being advertised, have no control over where the ads appear and thus bear no responsibility.  Is claiming ignorance any way to run an ad campaign or a business?

From my perspective, their implicit involvement, intentional or not,  should be revealed.  Every time one of these illegal files is added to a website where these ads appear, Google and et al earn money at the expense of the content creators.  This just isn’t right.

Chinese website streaming LOLA alongside Google sponsored advertising

In the scheme of things, our successful (highly-pirated) little indie film is a mere drop in the piracy bucket–we are one among thousands.  Collectively this tainted revenue is significant as is the harm done to those whose work is being stolen with the mere click of a mouse.

Certainly companies with the technological capacity (and robust balance sheets) of Google can afford to turn some attention to this issue.  If these companies can offer ad placement based on cached cookies and metadata, why can’t they vet the websites where their ads appear? It ain’t rocket science folks.  I daresay that if these websites were offering porn and not pirated films, these ads would NOT be popping-up, at least not for long.

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is viewed as the organization leading the charge against movie piracy.  I’ve spoken individuals there who have made it clear they are working hard on the issue of this illicit advertising and its link to piracy.   I’m also pleased to hear that the various guilds representing those who work in the film industry, ie. DGA, SAG, AFTRA, AFL-CIO etc. are also addressing this issue.

Chilling Effects Website

Thus far Google hasn’t responded to any of my direct inquiries.  However, they have responded to my frequent DMCA notices  with terse emails warning that my DMCA notices will be posted on the Chilling Effects website.   The implication therein is that by asserting my rights and sending a DMCA to request the removal of infringing content I am somehow “chilling” a pirate’s right to “free speech.”   Really?  In my view the only thing being “chilled” is our right to make a living.

A pirated version of the film complete with pirate subtitles and ads.

I’m hear from companies I’ve attempted to contact including Google, Sony and Pixar.  On July 2nd, after a piece appeared on NPR regarding this blog, I finally did hear from Netflix.  Their response can be found on this blog’s Netflix page.

It’s difficult enough to see one’s film being pirated widely online what is most disturbing is that everyone is making money, it seems, except those who own the rights to the film.   There is no single, nor simple, solution to online piracy but I believe progress can be made if all interested parties coalesce around a common goal.   There’s too much at stake not to.  Success in this fight will benefit content creators and consumers alike.

Starbucks and Network Solutions Ads on splash page

While I obviously have a personal interest in this story, it’s really the big picture that inspired me to document this situation.   For content creators, it’s bad enough being ripped off by online pirates–but to be further ripped off by established companies is truly stunning. -Ellen Seidler

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