Most know by now that advertising dollars are the fuel that feeds the fire of today’s online piracy. Today (February 16th) I discovered that some of Uncle Sam’s money makes up part of that fuel. I came across this ad, apparently sponsored, at least in part it seems, by the U.S. Forest Service. The ad popped up on an (illegal) download for a recently released indie film “A Perfect Ending” on the movreel.com cyberlocker.
I imagine the U.S. Forest Service has no idea that their advertising for the Smokey the Bear website emblazons an illegal download, but its presence does indicate the depth of the problem with online advertising’s lack of accountability when it comes to financing web-based piracy. As the recently released USC Annenberg Lab Ad Transparency Report documents, brand supported piracy is pervasive across the globe and involves a number of major corporations such as American Express, BMW, ATT, Walmart, etc. Well, now it appears you can add the U.S. government to that list.
What can be done? Perhaps we should add online piracy to the list of fires that Smokey the Bear puts out, or, at the very least, have him talk with colleagues in Washington D.C. about ways to “prevent” the problem.
Black markets are endemic in criminal culture, so it’s not much of a surprise, given the popularity of Internet commerce, that an illicit economy thrives online. By now we’ve grown accustomed to finding pirated content and counterfeit products marketed on web sites across the world. What’s disturbing is how entwined (and dependent) some of these shady enterprises are on so-called “legit” companies and how complicit such companies have become in creating, sustaining, and profiting from these dubious activities.
Google’s YouTube appears to be one such entity–a respected online portal favored by videophiles worldwide. Yet if you pull back the curtain, you’ll find that the site’s partner program facilitates–and reaps income from–a thriving crooked economy. It’s a racket that financially benefits the uploader, an intermediary and YouTube. Like a leech, its business (survival) model depends on a host (content creator) to thrive.
In a blog post published earlier this week, I outlined an instance where an industrious YouTube user had uploaded and monetized full-length feature films–films they did not own the rights to. In that piece I mentioned other instances I’d discovered whereby a number of YouTube account holders upload and monetize various movie trailers, most likely without permission from the rights holders.
I recently found an example of this activity on YouTube channels published by the user “MyTrailerIsRich.” It’s an ironic, and apt, choice of moniker since his channels boast more than 51 million monetized views. If the trailer isn’t “rich,” this industrious YouTube entrepreneur might be well on his way to becoming so, thanks to his mastery of this monetizing scheme. I call these folks “pleeches” for short–content “pirates” that operate like leeches–hangers-on who cling to, and feed off (the work of) others for personal gain.
Here’s one of this pleech’s channel offerings. Note that it’s easy to navigate to the pleech’s other channels (TV Series, Indie Movies, Documentaries and Sci-Fi Horror) by clicking a handy menu atop the page. To date he’s uploaded 362 videos to YouTube.
One of “MyTrailerIsRich’s” YouTube’s channel featuring trailers the user doesn’t own rights to but earns money off of.
A trailer for a recent indie release “Gayby” has attracted more than 350 views in just one day. Like the other trailers on this channel, it’s monetized with advertising and when I looked to see who claimed the trailer, I found this:
What’s worth noting about claim is that the “provider” is Wizdeo, an actual company based in France that’s serves as an intermediary to those seeking to monetize content online. Using YouTube’s Content Management System I researched the clip’s ”ownership information.” According to the results, Wizdeo has claimed “worldwide” rights to this trailer. There’s just one problem; it’s not true. I spoke with 2 distributors who do own rights (in multiple countries) and neither has given this company permission to monetize the trailer. (This trailer was likely downloaded from YouTube via a distributor’s own channel).
I also found this trailer (shown below) for the upcoming release “A Perfect Ending,” uploaded four days ago (January 9th, 2013). It’s already attracted nearly 2,000 monetized views. Distributors for this film also confirmed to me that they did not give this pleech (YouTube user) or Wizdeo permission to upload and monetize this clip.
YouTube user “MyTrailerisRich” claims this asset (worldwide) through Wizdeo even though he doesn’t own the rights to it.
Wizdeo may well have a number of clients who legitimately own the content they upload, but since I’ve verified that this pleech does not own the rights to these trailers, it begs the question: What exactly does Wizdeo do to monitor compliance with its terms and, in turn, what does YouTube do to make sure that third-parties such as Wizdeo comply with YouTube’s terms of service? In this situation, it appears to be a case of “Who’s on first?”
We will review your application before you notify our acceptance or refusal. We may reject your application if we believe that your string is not consistent with these terms and conditions…
(B) in any way violate the intellectual property rights. You must not distribute videos on your channel protected by copyright, which you are not the author, nor include in your video content that you do not have rights if you do not get authorization holders rights…
If a partner violates these terms, supposedly their account can be terminated:
In addition to any other rights or remedies available to us, we can at once or as the case may terminate this Program if we determine that you or other people, we establish that they are your affiliates or act in concert you (either as part of an existing partner account, either as part of a previously terminated account Associate)
do not comply with any requirements or limitations described in one page “Requirements for participation in the Program Partners” or have otherwise violated these Terms or any Documentation operating
have breached the Agreement distribution of audiovisual programs on the Internet, confirming your membership in our program,
Essentially, Wizdeo allows its users to create an account and then utilize Wizdeo’s drop-box account to upload content directly to YouTube. Using this setup, Wizdeo also acts as the financial intermediary (or bagman) and collects the resulting ad revenue from YouTube. They keep a portion of the proceeds; the uploader (in this case the pleech) gets a share, and YouTube/Google the rest. The actual rights holder earns zero.
In their terms of service, Wizdeo claims the company does not tolerate copyright infringement but it’s a claim that rings hollow. I spoke with a representative from another U.S. distributor who owns rights to a trailer that’s also posted on one of MyTrailerisRich’s YouTube channels. He said the company was familiar with Wizdeo and has had ongoing problems with them for the very reasons I’ve outlined. He told me that when the studio’s content management staff discovered trailers uploaded and erroneously claimed by Wizdeo, they corrected the claim via their YouTube CMS dashboard. Despite owning no rights for the trailer, Wizdeo reinstated the claim forcing studio staff to contact the Wizdeo tech department (in France) directly. If a distributor can’t come to an agreement to correct the claim, YouTube requires the aggrieved party to go to court if they want the video removed permanently. This can be an expensive proposition, particularly for those without deep pockets (like indie filmmakers).
Meanwhile, according to my source, they’ve made little progress in forcing Wizdeo to drop their false claim(s). It’s obvious as to why. The longer Wizdeo drags their feet, the more money they make. My source explained that if, and when Wizdeo does eventually give up, the company knows it’s not likely to face any real consequences. Meanwhile, the cash keeps coming. Reviewing their terms of service, it becomes obvious that in this instance, Wizdeo’s legalistic homage to honoring copyrights is boilerplate bull.
YouTube instructs a rights holders to use their DMCA takedown procedure when they come across this situation and routinely ignore any direct correspondence on the subject. They also won’t acknowledge how much income is derived from this illegal commerce, nor do they refund any of the resulting income to a video’s rightful owner. As is typical for YouTube/Google, it’s a matter of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” when it comes to this dubious activity. Meanwhile, company balance sheets continue to grow. Missing from this scenario is the fourth monkey, “do no evil.”
Content monetization is a business model that works well for both those who seek legitimate profits, and those seeking illegitimate ones. For YouTube and its stockholders, the difference between the two is apparently irrelevant. This despite their own “YouTube Partner” criteria:
You may not be able to monetize videos which use any of the following without the explicit permission of the person who created or produced all material:
Music (including cover songs, lyrics, and background music)
Graphics and pictures (including photographs and artwork)
Movie or TV visuals
Video game or software visuals. Click here for details.
Live performances (including concerts, sporting events, and shows)
For more information about content copyright requirements, please review the resources here.
Some examples of potentially infringing content are:
Music videos, such as the ones you might find on music video channels
Videos of live concerts, even if you captured the video yourself
Movies and movie trailers
Slide shows that include photos or images owned by somebody else
What you have here is a crime that falls through the cracks, not obvious at first glance, but insidious nonetheless. It’s a criminal business model that has seemingly become routine. YouTube can deny responsibility since Wizdeo provided the interface to upload and monetize the video, and Wizdeo can claim that it’s the “partners” who violated their terms of service by uploading content that’s not their own. Where exactly does the buck stop? Is this the sort of “safe harbor” envisioned by those who crafted the DMCA? Is it really acceptable for YouTube and Wizdeo to look the other way while pocketing loads of cash from what is clearly illegal activity?
Imagine how much money you could make if the dancing cat videos you uploaded to YouTube got 51 million hits? Some will argue that trailers are designed to publicize films and that this viral marketing is good for business. Of course having one’s trailer on YouTube is good for business. If I search YouTube for “Gayby” or “A Perfect Ending” I can easily find and view the legit versions uploaded by the film’s distributors. In fact, I can embed one right here on this website.
Theres no doubt viral marketing has become a fundamental part of modern-day film marketing. In most cases, distributors have no problem with YouTube users who upload and share trailers to films, but it should be left to the rights owner to monetize them, not the uploader or intermediaries. As host of the site, it’s reasonable that YouTube share in any revenues for legitimately claimed trailers, but beyond that, it’s basically theft.
Remember, even those who developed the Creative Commons license options have made the distinction clear. Creative commons licensors may be happy to allow sharing with attribution, but generally not content commercialization without compensation. The recent kerfuffle over Instagram’s proposed changes in their terms of service was also sparked by the fact its users did not appreciate the idea that the company would monetize uploaded photographs without permission.
This activity has clearly evolved into a cottage industry on YouTube and it’s clearly “good” business for their bottom line– but the question remains, is it an ethical way of doing business? Not so much.
…many major brands are not aware that they are in fact the key source of funds for the Piracy industry, it is the goal of this “transparency report” to aid in helping these brands steer their ad dollars away from sites that exploit film, TV and music artists for what appears to be criminal gain.
Though I applaud the report’s overall findings that ad dollars incentivize and subsidize online piracy, I question the conclusion that “major brands” were not “aware that they are in fact the key source of funds for the Piracy industry.” As I’ve noted in the past, advertisers are usually extremely careful, and cognizant, about where their advertising appears. Why the sudden lack of concern for their ad placements online?
More than two years ago I was inspired to start the blog, Popup Pirates (www.popuppirates.com), to document this very issue. As an indie filmmaker facing piracy, it didn’t take me long to recognize there was a major link between ad dollars and the growth of online piracy. In the blog I attempted to answer the question “Who Profits from Piracy?” From my introduction:
Online piracy isn’t about altruism, it’s about income. Today’s technology allows web pirates to steal content and monetize that content with a click of a mouse. Meanwhile, “legit” companies encourage and facilitate this theft while also profiting from it (ad service providers, advertisers and payment processors). The time has come for reasonable measures to be taken to discourage this theft. Content creators and consumers will benefit. Only the pirates and those who profit from their theft will lose.
I wrote that in June of 2010. Yet here we are, nearly three years later, and what has changed? Reading the latest news, it appears the answer is, “not much.” According to the LA Times Levi’s was said to surprised by the report’s findings and contacted their ad agency and instructed them to take immediate action to prevent their ads from appear on illegal file-sharing websites. Was Levi’s really surprised–and more important–will other companies finally follow their lead and become vigilant in preventing their ads from appearing on pirate websites? Forgive me if I remain skeptical. The fact that ad dollars fuel online piracy is not news.
Here’s a video I put together based on a presentation I gave at Canadian Music Week’s Global Forum in the spring of 2011. It documents my journey through the labyrinth of online piracy and its undeniable link to advertising revenues. Follow the money…
Some progress has been made since then, most notably, last year’s takedown of Megaupload–the Big Daddy of illegal file sharing. It’s worth noting at this juncture, that Megaupload’s millions were generated in large measure by ad dollars (as well as subscription fees). Numerous copycat websites have sprung up to fill the void left by Megaupload, and they too depend business models sustained by advertising dollars. With the demise of legislative efforts to address this black market, content creators are left with little recourse.
Back in 2010 I attempted to contact advertisers like Netflix and others whose ads were, and still are, ubiquitous on numerous illegal download sites. Most of my efforts were ignored, but on July of 2010, after NPR aired a story about my blog on “All Things Considered” that mentioned Netflix ads; I received an email from Steve Swasey, their VP of Corporate Communications who wrote the following:
Netflix does not tolerate piracy and we do not support pirate sites. We are very clear with our advertising agencies and affiliate partners about this. Sometimes ads slip through and when this happens, we react swiftly and decisively, removing the ad and not paying the site.
Again, that was over two years ago. Yet here’s an example of a Netflix ad (served by Google) on a pirate site I posted on this bloglast month. The ad appears alongside an embedded, full stream of a pirated film, “Kyss Mig.” As I said, not much seems to have changed.
We’ll see if this latest report from Annenberg precipitates real change. I did take heart by looking at the results of an unofficial poll that accompanied the LA Times piece asking readers: “Should brands avoid advertising on so-called pirate sites?” As of now, 63% said yes, while 37% said no.
Perhaps there’s reason to hope, that at long last, the balance could shift away from an insidious equation where everyone, except the actual content creators, make money from online theft. When presented with clear and tangible evidence, the public seems to be on the side of creators. Yet in this game, for any real progress to be made, the ball remains squarely in the advertisers’ court.
Not to beat a dead horse, but surprise, surprise….I did a Google search this morning to see how easy it would be to find download links for “Kyss Mig,” a recently released Swedish indie film. I used Google to search for “download kyss mig” from this past month, and….oops, so much for Google’s new search algorithm that’s supposed to penalize (reported) pirate sites. Why am I not surprised that The Pirate Bay result tops the list?
Maybe if I use the less pirate-centric term “watch” instead of “download” I’llhave better luck finding a legit source? Um, well, no, guess that won’t work either. Once again the top search results are sites notorious for linking to pirated films. Even more maddening is what I discovered when I clicked the first link…
Not only did I find the full film streaming (for free) online (I checked and actually viewed the first ten minutes) but right beside was a Netflix advertisement. When I checked the source of the ad I found it led me back to “doubleclick.net” a Google-owned company. Perhaps this is how Google expects users to find legit copies of the film? After all, Kyss Mig does stream on Netflix….kind of a roundabout way to find the film when I can watch it right here, right now for free! Of course Google makes money from the ad either way (as does the pirate website) so what do they care? Hmmm, perhaps the Google ad placement has something to do with why this pirate site is comes up first in search results? Not to don my tin foil hat but….
A full (free) stream of the indie film “Kyss Mig” was easy to find thanks to Google search results–result that generated ad revenue for Google and website operators. BTW, movie is now offline since I reported it to the distributor.
I guess I’m going to have to be a good girl and use the search terms “buy Kiss Mig.” Only then am I given results that lead me to legit options.
BTW, I notified the distributor that the film was available via this pirate site so as of Monday, December 10th, this illegal stream is history. Too bad I can’t say the same for the website itself.
YouTube is well-known for videos, but a recent Nielsen study revealed 64 percent of teens and young adults go to it to listen to and discover music. The free website, which is owned by Google, has set up advertising deals to help musicians get compensated. But it’s not clear how they’re getting paid — or how much.
First of all, I’d point out that Google didn’t “set up” advertising deals to “help” musicians get compensated. Advertising on YouTube was established to help Google make money. For them, compensating artists in some fashion is merely a part of doing business. Google’s motivations aside, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post on YouTube’s monetization program:
The other grey area with regard to the Content ID system and monetization is the utter lack of transparency. How much does Google actually make off the ads that appear next to your content? It’s not entirely clear and something Google should fix. One can only assume it’s to Google’s benefit, and not the artist’s, to keep this part of the system as opaque as possible.
Bottom line, musicians and filmmakers whose work is routinely uploaded to YouTube without permission can make some money from it. Time for Google to tell us exactly how much they are making. Anything less than full transparency is unacceptable.