Aug 09

We Can’t all be HBO…

game-of-groans-HBOLeading the piracy parade is ‘better than an Emmy’?  Please, speak for yourself Mr. Bewkes…

According a story yesterday in AdWeek, another well-paid executive linked to the HBO hit “Game of Thrones” is once again singing the praises of online piracy.  Last time it was HBO’s programming president Michael Lombardo, now Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has joined the chorus.

…in response to a question about whether the network kinda-sorta regards the extensive theft of HBO’s flagship show, Game of Thrones, as a compliment, Bewkes said, “I have to admit it, I think you’re right.” The much-discussed fantasy series is HBO’s most popular, and “if you go to people who are watching it without subs, it’s a tremendous word-of-mouth thing,” the exec told investors. “We’ve been dealing with this for 20, 30 years—people sharing subs, running wires down the backs of apartment buildings. Our experience is that it leads to more paying subs. I think you’re right that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world,” he said. “That’s better than an Emmy.”

Yeah sure, easy to say if you’re CEO of Time Warner and have a huge hit like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” on your hands.  But really, given that you work in the media industry Mr. Bewkes, didn’t you have a clue as to the impact your glib “soundbite” would have on an already hyperbolic debate over online piracy and copyright reform?

Fine Time Warner/HBO, feel free give your show away and boast that the record (pirate) downloading of Game of Thrones episodes is a hunky-dory thing for your bottom line.  In your case, it may well be….more power to you.

The problem is that when Jeff Bewkes muses to a reporter that, for a hit show like Game of Thrones, piracy is “better than an Emmy” it can lead the general public to assume the same reality applies to all content creators.  Certainly piracy apologists are likely to make hay–and headlines–out of it.

Perhaps creators whose works have been massively pirated can take some solace from Bewkes’ success, but the fact is his experience (and that of HBO programming) is not one matched by their own.  The Time Warner CEO likely doesn’t have much difficulty paying bills (or financing his next production) like so many do.  Many filmmakers don’t have the reach (or deep pockets) of HBO and, like it or not, for them online piracy (driven by black market profiteers) is a detriment to success–not a sign of it. Bewkes’ self-serving proclamation does little to advance or clarify the debate over how best to mitigate the corrosive impact that online piracy (for profit) has on artists.

Next time CEO Bewkes should choose his words more carefully and explain that for HBO,  the popularity of Game of Thrones is a measure of success that helps generate buzz that’s good for business–but that it’s important to differentiate between their distribution landscape and the one faced by so many others.

If he feels his words were misconstrued (webcast available here) he should clarify his remarks sooner rather than later for the sake of those whose livelihoods do suffer because of unchecked online theft.

Jul 24

Do we really want Google and Amazon to control the (online) world?

Why aren’t we alarmed by the web giants’ efforts to increase their control of online commerce?

amazon-googleAmazon and Google are 2 of the most influential companies in the U.S., if not the world.  Clearly their business models have been hugely successful and their online innovations cannot be denied–but at what cost?  Is it a good development if Amazon succeeds in putting bookstores out of business or if Google controls the top-level generic domain .movie?

Today on Salon.com a story by Evan Hughes, “Here’s how Amazon self-destructs” examines the ways Amazon (and we) could suffer if brick and mortar bookstores go out of business:

The brick and mortar outlets that Amazon is imperiling play a huge role in driving book sales and fostering literary culture. Although beaten by the Internet in unit sales, physical stores outpace virtual ones by 3-to-1 in introducing books to buyers. Bookshelves sell books. In a trend that is driving the owner of your neighborhood independent to drink, customers are engaging in “showrooming,” browsing in shops and then buying from Amazon to get a discount. This phenomenon is gradually suffocating stores to death. If you like having a bookseller nearby, think carefully before doing this. Never mind the ethics of showrooming — it’s self-defeating. You’re killing off a local business you like.

Amazon was also made headlines this week because of its quest to secure .amazon as one of the  new “generic top level” domain names that will soon be made available (to those who can afford them).  ICANN’s (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Governmental Advisory Committee recommended rejecting the company’s request for control over the domain name in response to complaints by various South American countries who argued “Amazon” was a geographical reference for their region.

Shouldn’t we be concerned with the possibility that control of the top level generic domains such as .music and .movie  could go to the highest bidder?  According to Bizjournals.com:

It appears Google applied for the most domains, although it did so under a different name, Charleston Road Registry. Charleston Road applied for domains such as .google, .chrome, .gmail and .earth. But it also applied for some more generic words, including .fly, .dad, .home and .love.

This issue has, it seems, slid under the radar until now, but as I wrote in a blog post nearly a year ago, the notion that large corporations could control these generic domain names is troubling.  At the time Consumer Watchdog expressed this concern in a letter sent to Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation:

We believe the plans by Google and Amazon are extremely problematic and call on you to help prevent their implementation. It is one thing to use a Top Level Domain name that is associated with your brand name. In Google’s case that might be .Google or .YouTube or .Android. Similarly it makes make sense for Amazon to acquire .Amazon or .Kindle. But, that is not what is happening.Google has ponied up $18.7 million to buy 101 domain strings like .eat, .buy, .book, .free, .web, and .family. Amazon is close behind the Internet giant applying for 76 domain strings including such names as .free, .like, .game, and .shop.

If these applications are granted, large parts of the Internet would be privatized. It is one thing to own a domain associated with your brand, but it is a huge problem to take control of generic strings. Both Google and Amazon are already dominant players on the Internet. Allowing them further control by buying generic domain strings would threaten the free and open Internet that consumers rely upon. Consumer Watchdog urges you to do all that you can to thwart these outrageous efforts and ensure that the Internet continues its vibrant growth while serving the interests of all of its users.

According to Bizjournals.com it costs $185,000 application fee per name (chump change for Google and Amazon):

Companies paid a $185,000 application fee per name and will have to pay $25,000 a year to run the registry where other companies will be able to register to use that “top-level” domain.

I don’t know about you, but the thought of Google and Amazon gaining even more control over web commerce sends shivers down my spine.  Here’s a graphic of the top level domains that Google has applied for.

google-top-level-domains

Maybe Google should consider going after the .piracy domain while they’re at it?   Do we really want Google to control the top level domain name “movie?”  I don’t.

Google is one of 8 companies that have applied for control of "movie" domain name

Google is one of 8 companies that have applied for control of “movie” domain name

You have to wonder why Google opted to apply under Charleston Road Registry rather than use their brand name, but I suppose that’s a story for another day…

At any rate, speaking of movies and piracy–and since we’re on the subject of Google and Amazon–I thought I’d share a website I came across today.  It’s a Google-sponsored Blogspot.com pirate site that offers illegal downloads links for dozens of indie films and, for good measure, there’s a pop-up advertisement for Amazon.com at the bottom of the page….2 peas in a piracy pod.

Google-amazon-piracy-profits

Wasn’t it just this week the Victoria Espinel, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator for the Obama administration announced a new initiative “Coming Together to Combat Online Piracy and Counterfeiting” in which companies would voluntarily support efforts to thwart piracy profiteers? According to her statement:

Today, 24/7 Media, Adtegrity, AOL, Condé Nast, Google, [emphasis added] Microsoft, SpotXchange, and Yahoo!, with the support of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, committed to a set of best practices to address online infringement by reducing the flow of ad revenue to operators of sites engaged in significant piracy and counterfeiting. The Administration strongly supports voluntary efforts by the private sector to reduce infringement and we welcome the initiative brought forward by the companies to establish industry-wide standards to combat online piracy and counterfeiting by reducing financial incentives associated with infringement.

Forgive my cynicism, but until the enablers of piracy put their money where their mouths are when it comes to “best practices” I can’t take this so-called “commitment” too seriously. Advertisers (like Amazon) need to stop engaging in ad-sponsored piracy, take responsibility  and demand accountability with regard to where their ads appear.  Meanwhile, Google needs stop talking and start doing by aggressively disabling blogger-hosted pirate websites, delisting pirate search results, terminating pirate AdSense accounts, etc.

 

This post was originally published on voxindie.org.

May 29

Movie 2k Blocked?

Movies 2k has disaappearedNotorious Pirate site Movie2k.to is gone…at least for now

Some good news for indie filmmakers whose work is routinely stolen online.  As of now, the popular pirate portal http://www.movie2k.to is offline thanks, it seems to a court order issued in the UK.  According to a story in Torrent Freak earlier this month a number of UK ISPs were served with a court order that requires them to block the sites or be legally liable for the infringement that occurs.   It’s not clear at this point how that effort has affected the site’s availability in places like the United States.

Movie 2k is dead

No matter the reason, this is good news for filmmakers.  Not only did Movie2k.to list illegal download links for thousands of films, but the site also ignored DMCA takedown requests.

Since the site itself didn’t respond, sending notices to Google was the only way content creators could take action against it.  In February when I checked the Google transparency report for Movie2k.to I found the search giant had received 37,764 takedown requests to have related search results removed.

Movie 2k takedown requests February 2013

At the time I demonstrated how the popular film “Silver Linings Playbook” download links were easy to find via Google search on Movie2k.to.

Dozens of downloads for Silver Linings playbook could be found on movie2k.to

Dozens of download links to pirated copies of Silver Linings Playbook on Movie2k

Dozens of download links to pirated copies of Silver Linings Playbook on Movie2k

It’s important to note that studio films were not the only ones victimized by Movie 2k.  The site offered links to illegal streams and downloads of hundreds of indie films too.

Whether its disappearance is permanent remains unknown.  For now, however, there’s cause to celebrate as another pirate site bites the dust….

 

This post was originally posted on voxindie.org

May 22

Hey Derek…the Tech Industry is a “Special Interest” too!

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 12.39.50 PMDerek Khanna first came to public notice in 2012 after writing a lopsided anti-copyright “policy brief” for Republican Study Committee called “Three Myths About Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix It.” A day after the document was released it was withdrawn and Khanna lost his job at the end of the 112th Congress.  He blamed wealthy donors in the “entertainment industry” for his dismissal and quickly became a martyr for the anti-copyright cause.  He ended up at as Yale Law Fellow with the Information Society Project.

Unfortunately, like many of those in the legal field who are working to undermine creator’s rights, Mr. Khanna speaks from a decidedly one-sided perspective in penning a piece for today’s Washington Post that ominously warns that  “Hollywood should not decide our copyright laws.”  Aside from selecting a splashy but lazy (and inaccurate) headline for his piece, he conveniently ignored the (Tech) elephant in the room when he wrote, ” Last year’s defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) caused industry groups to intensify their lobbying efforts. And they haven’t been subtle about it.”  Sure, television and motion picture interests have increased their presence in Washington, but then so has “Big Tech.”

May I remind you that the reality of the anti-SOPA uprising was in large part a result of a deliberate (and well-funded) astro-turf campaign managed by the big guns of tech (Google, et al) to gin up the public.  How hard is it to get the internet in a spin when you’re in control of its major gateways?  Certainly there was room for open discussion about the Stop Online Piracy Act and possible revisions to improve it, but the option for an open debate was quickly overwhelmed by an online avalanche of protest.  Never mind that the majority of those who Tweeted or posted condemnations on Facebook hadn’t actually read the bill.  For them all that was required was a mendacious meme that SOPA would “break the internet” and do away with “free speech” online.

Screen Shot 2013-05-21 at 12.42.41 PMIt’s also worth noting that Mr. Khanna’s current employer (the Yale Law Information Society Project)  receives some of its funding from Google–a company not exactly known for its love of present copyright law.

I do agree with one thing Khanna wrote in his post piece:

So in its deliberations, Goodlatte’s committee should ensure that Hollywood isn’t the only voice at the table. Both content creators and innovators desperately want to see copyright reform.

However, after that non-controversial statement it all goes downhill, quickly as Mr. Khanna gives readers a list of examples that, to him, demonstrate why copyright law is bad for creators and industry innovators alike.  Why’s that a problem?  Well, it’s a problem because, as is often the case with the copy-left, he doesn’t see fit to talk to tell the full story as to how crucial copyright protection is for those whose livelihoods depend on content creation.  Khanna lists Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy, as an example of an artist constrained by current copyright law, but fails to mention that while Shocklee is a musician, he’s known for work often derived from sampling the work of others.  His situation is not exactly representative of all artists, musical or otherwise, who have a stake in this debate.

Why not talk to some 45% of professional musicians who are no longer working in large part because our current copyright law is flouted by today’s digital pirate profiteers?  Why not make mention of the independent filmmakers whose innovations are routinely stolen and monetized by bootleggers and online thieves?

Mr. Khanna also drones on in typical fashion about the DMCA.  Yes, it’s an outdated law, but not for the reason he states.  It’s outdated because it’s unworkable for creators, small and large, because its “safe harbor” provisions make protecting one’s content from pirate profiteers nearly impossible. He closes his piece by saying:

We can craft a system of copyright that compensates rights holders and incentivizes innovation for start-ups and new artists. It is not an either or proposition. But we’ll only get a balanced copyright system if Congress hears from a broad range of voices. It can’t just be special interests controlling the debate, writing the amendments in backrooms, and writing big checks to members of Congress.

True enough, BUT please remember that artists ARE innovators and that the tech industry represents a big “special interest.”   Next time hearings are held in Washington let’s hope that a diversity of creator’s voices is heard rather than a panel of legal theorists–and if he writes about copyright reform again, perhaps Mr. Khanna would be wise take the same “balanced” approach he’s suggesting for members of Congress.

 

This post was originally published on voxindie.org.

Apr 22

MacKeeper Software Ads Blanket Pirate Websites, Providing Profits to Thieves

Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 12.46.23 PMOver the past months, as I’ve journeyed across the web investigating pirate websites I found that many shared something in common (besides stealing content to profit off the work of others).  Along with illegal downloads to popular movies, often times the sites deliver pop-up ads for MacKeeper software, a product of Silicon Valley based Zeobit.

Ads and piracy go hand in hand.  It’s how pirate sites make money.  Ads appearing on such sites run the gamut from Progressive Car Insurance to online sex chat, but more often that not it seems, I’m greeted by an advertisement for MacKeeper.

mackeeper ads.002

MacKeeper ad pops up on an illegal download.

Had these ads been an isolated incident, it wouldn’t bother me.  Unfortunately as far as MacKeeper goes, it’s not limited to an ad or two here and there.  In fact, if you were to asking me the most common advertisement that pops up to fill my computer screen via pirate downloads, it’s MacKeeper.  Below are just a few examples that I’ve recently come across after clicking an illegal download link that I was investigating.

mackeeper .001

MacKeeper’s advertising methods have generated controversy in the past, not because of the fact the company seems happy to partner with pirates, but because of their ubiquity.  According to a story published on Cult of Mac, the software itself isn’t particularly popular among Mac aficionados for this reason.  The company’s PR director Jeremiah Fowler explained their approach to advertising  to the Cult of Mac’s  this way:

Legitimate Mac Users who are annoyed or tired of our advertising campaigns or partner’s campaigns. Do we advertise? Yes! Do we advertise aggressively, I would not like to use that term but we do have a massive advertising presence online! [emphasis added] We have had 15,000,000 downloads of MacKeeper and have a less than 3% refund rate. The reality is that many people are truly happy with the product even if they hate the advertising (and unfortunately some do). The bad part is some people take their hatred for advertising to a level where they dedicate hours of their lives to making MacKeeper a “Forum Punching Bag”… In a perfect world there would be no advertisements on radio, TV, billboards or the internet, but this is not a reality. As long as there are ads, there will be people who hate them.

We believe that we have a great product and we want people to know about it and the only way to do this is to explore every medium of advertisement. [emphasis added] It is like investing everything in to a great restaurant and hiring the best chefs, buying the best food only to hide the location somewhere in the woods and then tell no one about it. Then wondering why no one comes to your restaurant? We are discussing phasing out our ads and trying to please the vocal minority, but we realize that pleasing everyone is impossible.

It’s not the ads or the product that I mind, it’s where their ads appear.   Given the fact the MacKeeper ads pop-up more often than not on pirate downloads, I think it’s safe to generalize and say they must send a great deal of money the pirates way.  As Mr. Fowler made clear in his conversation with Cult of Mac, the company views its advertising methods as good business.  Never mind, it seems, who they are doing business with.

I’ve attempted to reach out to Zeobit for comment, but as is usually the case with Silicon Valley tech companies, transparency is not  part of their business plan.  Should I receive a response, I will be happy to update this post.

Ironically, the company touts its belief in “social responsibility” on its website’s front page.  It seems that their view of “social responsibility” does not extend to creator’s rights.  It’s shameful that the company doesn’t take action to prevent their ads from subsidizing what is, essentially, illegal activity.

social response.003

For the record, Zeobit receives an A- on the Better Business Bureau’s review website.  From my perspective, the company should receive an F when it comes advertising accountability.  Per usual, profits trump ethics.

 

This post was also published at VoxIndie.org

Apr 17

Facebook’s Link to the Online Piracy Food Chain

thumbs-downThe fact that online piracy has flourished over these past few years is nothing new.  Neither is its co-dependence on an ever-efficient distribution network, largely developed and maintained by an assortment of tech enterprises based in Silicon Valley .  Up to this point, Facebook’s role in enabling this plague of piracy has, for the most part, generally been minimized, if not ignored entirely.  But given the ever-expanding influential reach of world’s #1 social network, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the site’s role as a purveyor of pirated content.

In the past I’ve written about the popularity of Google’s blogger platform  among pirate entrepreneurs because it offers both an easy (and free) way to distribute stolen movies and make money via online ads.  How does Facebook fit into this equation?  Well, just as legit businesses use Facebook to gain customers, pirate profiteers around the world also utilize its popularity to attract users to their illegal websites.  Check out any pirate site on blogspot.com, or anywhere else on the web for that matter,  and you’re likely to find a link to the site’s Facebook pages (as well as other social networking sites like Twitter).

facebook youtube pirate.004

The Facebook page (shown below) for the FilmesYouTube site (shown above) boasts more than 166k “likes.”  The Facebook page sends visitors to the pirate website, and also features numerous posts which link directly to easy-to-use, active streams and download links for a variety of popular movies.

cruise.006

Facebook links directly to full stream of pirated movie starring Tom Cruise.

Depending on one’s preference, one can either watch the movie online or download a copy.   Either way it’s free–the only inconvenience being a pop-up ad or two.

facebook pirates.005

Facebook links to full stream (and download links) to GI Joe.

In this example, it appears that this Facebook pirate has also been busy creating multiple websites that also link to mirrored Facebook pages.  If one notes the “likes” listed on this page, you’ll find links to several other “free” movie sites setup in a similar fashion.  This redundancy may be in part due to concerns that one or more of these pirate sites could go offline.  However, given the fact this particular page boasts 166K “likes” it appears this fan page has been active for some time.

more facebook.008

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 11.55.58 AMThe common thread between the Facebook pages and the pirate websites is that both generate income from advertisements.  The more visitors, the more money for Facebook and, in turn, the more traffic to the pirate sites which,in turn, generates more ad profits for the online pirate entrepreneur.  Who’s left out of this equation?-the content creator of course.

When I viewed the above page it featured “sponsored ads” promoting Capitol One and Discover credit cards, along with political PACS and Ancestry.com.   Do these entities realize that the sponsored advertising they’re paying Facebook for appear adjacent to pirate links to bootleg, illegal movie downloads?  I doubt it.

As for advertising on the actual pirate web site (which translates into motive and money for the pirate) I found ads for Amazon.com and others served up by the Ad Council, a U.S. based non-profit whose mission is to “deliver critical messages to the American public.”  

Perhaps the time has come for the Ad Council to add anti-piracy messages to their slate of “critical” messages for the American public?

 

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 11.50.32 AM

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 12.25.17 PMLike Google, Facebook offers rights holders the opportunity to send DMCA takedown requests to have these illegal links removed.  Unfortunately, Facebook mirrors Google in another way–when it comes to DMCA notices, usually only individual posts are removed, not the infringing page.

It’s been my experience that when I’ve reported infringing content to Facebook via a DMCA only the  post with the pirate link is removed.  The Facebook page, with dozens more pirated offerings, remains online. I can understand if only a single link is reported, but what about a site that’s repeatedly reported for copyright infringement?  From what I’ve seen such sites generally remain online.  If it’s obvious that the page is dedicated to promoting pirated content, why leave it online?

I’ve asked Google this same question, if a site is reported for promoting infringing (illegal) downloads why not remove it?  Surely Facebook has the staff to investigate and determine whether a site exists purely to traffic in stolen content.  If not, why not?  Why is it OK for a company with the reach and financial resources of Facebook to look the other way?  Their censors often seem all to eager to remove photos of breastfeeding mothers or LGBT advertising.  Why not go after pages that are trafficking in illegal content?

I’ve tried to contact Facebook to ask for clarity on the criteria, if any, they have for removing pages and will update this post if I should receive a response.  Given my past experiences with inquiries to Facebook, I’m not optimistic that I’ll hear back anytime soon. The “community standards” that define what type of “expression is acceptable” is conveniently vague when it comes to copyright and intellectual property:

Before sharing content on Facebook, please be sure you have the right to do so. We ask that you respect copyrights, trademarks, and other legal rights.

Facebook is careful to point out, however that the decision as to whether to remove content reported for violating their terms is entirely up to them.

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 12.49.56 PM

The link between piracy’s advertising profits and those of so-called legit entities like Google (including YouTube, AdSense, Blogger & search) and the corporations they service ads for has been well-documented so that fact that Facebook is a part of this web of illicit profit is no real surprise.  However, it’s worth asking once again, why isn’t something being done?

movie2k.011

The notorious Pirate site Movies2k even boasts it’s own Facebook page.

How is that mainstream tech companies like Google and Facebook–and those who pay to advertise with their networks–continue to look the other way and ignore their role in providing both a motive, and a means,  for this illegal activity to occur?  The obvious answer is that profit trumps morality when it’s a matter of making millions.  In this era, and until the law adapts, there’s little to no risk in skirting U.S. law in order to maintain their cash cows. Clearly the fact that this is tainted revenue doesn’t matter to these companies or their stockholders.  With the amount of lobbying muscle they’re displaying in Washington these days, things appear unlikely to change any time soon.

Updated (4-16-13) to add the response I received from Facebook.  Just as I suspected, nothing but boilerplate verbiage.  Here it is:

Screen shot 2013-04-16 at 11.32.37 AMFacebook may “stand ready” to respond, but in my experience, they don’t do much else.

 

Jan 26

YouTube (and Netflix) monetize online piracy

tt0150662Need more evidence that Google’s YouTube earns income from pirates who upload (and monetize) films for which they don’t own the rights?  Well, here’s another example I found today (1/26/13).  This time it’s a YouTube user with the moniker “iWatchEpicMovies.”   The film in question (one of many the uploaded claimed by the user) is a 1998 Swedish film, released in the United States under the title “Show Me Love.” The original title in Swedish was “Fucking Amal.”

The film was uploaded to YouTube on January 23rd and claimed by the uploader, who asserted “ownership in the following countries: Worldwide.”  When you view the film on YouTube it’s monetized with advertising, meaning the uploader and YouTube earn money very view.  Not only is the pirated film monetized, but ironically,  one of the ads  superimposed over the screen is a Netflix ad.  So, in this case, Netflix is also benefiting from the presence of this pirated film on YouTube.  BTW, Netflix is no stranger to allowing its advertising to be promoted aside pirated movies.  I wrote about another recent example of this here.

FA Youtube online.024

Pirated film Monetized on YouTube by Google featuring Netflix Ads

Google/YouTube will, as always, claim that it’s the rights holder’s job to police YouTube and to request that infringing content be removed.  Of course, in the interim, Google’s happy to make money and Netflix is happy to attract new customers (and make money).

In another ironic twist to this pirated upload, the YouTube user posts this disclaimer “I do not claim copyrights.  For entertainment purposes only.”  Perhaps “iWatchEpicMovies” should rewrite it to clarify, and say:  “I do not claim copyrights, but I assert ownership (worldwide) for the purpose of making money off something I don’t own.”

 

This post first published on Vox Indie.

Jan 22

Chronic, Ill-Gotten Gains- Google’s Web of Piracy Profit

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

— Sir Walter Scott

 

Surprise, surprise–Google announced today that its profits “surged” this quarter thanks to an increase in online advertising revenue.  A company press release heralded the news:

We ended 2012 with a strong quarter,” said Larry Page, CEO of Google. “Revenues were up 36% year-on-year, and 8% quarter-on-quarter. And we hit $50 billion in revenues for the first time last year – not a bad achievement in just a decade and a half. In today’s multi-screen world we face tremendous opportunities as a technology company focused on user benefit. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be at Google.”

The company’s stock price jumped nearly 5% on the news.  So, while Google executives and its shareholders are happy, one has to ask–how much of that “revenue” continues to come from not-so-ethical sources?  I hate to sound like a broken record, but until Google gets its act together, I will continue to point out its duplicity with regard to online piracy and its ad revenue.

google-circle-piracy

In the wake of this bullish news from Google I thought I’d point out a recent case study that demonstrates the myriad of ways Google supports (and profits from) piracy. This particular pirate movie website (shown below) is hosted on Google’s free “Blogger” platform.  As with most other posts on the site, this one (published 1-18-13) features an embedded movie (a complete version of the indie film David’s Birthday) hosted via Google’s YouTube.  The advertising above, and to the right of the embedded film, is served up by Google’s AdSense.  Oh, and I found this site using Google’s search engine.

blogspot.com pirated movies

This Google-hosted blog features pirated films hosted on YouTube as well as AdSense advertising.

What makes this situation particularly troubling is that this blog had already been reported to Google (via their DMCA system) in December of 2012.   

Screen Shot 2013-01-19 at 7.06.14 PM

After receiving a takedown notice from Google the site’s owner posted a response, saying that he was considering closing it.

pirate blogger site

Blogger site owner received this notice from Google. Despite the warning and repeated violations of Blogger “Terms of Use” the site remains online.

He apparently had a change of heart, and within a few days, resumed posting (infringing) content on his site –including (ironically) the aforementioned “David’s Birthday” despite its having been cited in the December DMCA notice.  This time, instead of posting infringing download links, he’s chosen to embed movies streamed via YouTube, each coupled with AdSense ads.

removed page.018

So, despite having been reported for multiple infringing links, the site remains up and running.  In the meantime, Google appears to be in no hurry to take it offline.   Don’t they have an obligation to remove the site?  The language in Blogger’s Terms of Service outlining their “content policy” is conveniently vague.  When a site violates its policy Google promises to take action “based on the severity of the violation” but it’s not really clear what criteria is used to measure the “severity” of a reported violation.

blogger terms of serv.014

Blogger’s terms of service

As for the AdSense, its  “Terms of Service” seem pretty straightforward.  Well, sort of…

 Prohibited Uses. You shall not, and shall not authorize or encourage any third party to…

(v) display any Ad(s), Link(s), or Referral Button(s) on any Web page or any Web site that contains any pornographic, hate-related, violent, or illegal content;

6.      Termination; Cancellation…Google may investigate any activity that may violate this Agreement. Google may at any time, in its sole discretion, terminate all or part of the Program, terminate this Agreement, or suspend or terminate the participation of any Property in all or part of the Program for any reason.

Since Google seems to have “investigated” this website in response to multiple DMCA notices, why is this AdSense account allowed to remain active?  Does the aggrieved party have to file a DMCA with Blogger and with AdSense over and over again?  It’s hard to imagine that Google’s copyright “team” isn’t aware these violations.  Does Google not have the money to hire staff to follow-up on reported sites to enforce compliance?  Is Google complying with U.S. law?  What is meant by the caveat “its [Google’s] sole discretion?”

Does looking at the actual law clarify matters?  According to Title 17 of U.S. Copyright Law, “conditions for eligibility” for “limitations on liability” include:

(i) Conditions for Eligibility.—

(1) Accommodation of technology. — The limitations on liability established by this section shall apply to a service provider only if the service provider —

(A) has adopted and reasonably implemented, and informs subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network of, a policy that provides for the termination in appropriate circumstances of subscribers and account holders of the service provider’s system or network who are repeat infringers; (emphasis added)

How exactly does Google define a “repeat infringer?”  They apparently don’t.

In a post published in September of 2011 on its own Public Policy Blog entitled “Making Copyright Work Better Online-A Progress Report,” Google gave itself a pat on the back, asserting that the company had made great strides in discouraging ad-sponsored piracy.

Improving our AdSense anti-piracy review. We have always prohibited the use of our AdSense program on web pages that provide infringing materials, and we routinely terminate publishers who violate our policies. In recent months, we have worked hard to improve our internal enforcement procedures. In April, we were among the first companies to certify compliance in the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB’s) Quality Assurance Certification program, through which participating advertising companies will take steps to enhance buyer control over the placement and context of advertising and build brand safety. In addition, we have invited rightsholder associations to identify their top priority sites for immediate review, and have acted on those tips when we have received them.

Sounds good right? On paper perhaps, but given the continued and pervasive presence of Google-sponsored advertising on pirate sites throughout the web,  the reality is that Google’s public pledge appears to be carefully crafted lip-service designed to obfuscate the facts, rather than a representation of any meaningful progress.

Over the past two and a half years I’ve written extensively about Google’s ongoing link to ad piracy profits.  Earlier this month USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab released a report documenting the fact that search giant is at the head of the pack when it comes to monetizing (and subsidizing) online piracy via its ad networks.  The relationship between Google and online piracy seems clear as day.

Yet, in the meantime–Google apparently plays fast and loose with the DMCA’s “safe harbor” provision.  Given the fact they have teams of lawyers, one has to assume the company is careful to follow the letter of the law, but certainly not the spirit of it.  Did the legislators who crafted the DMCA really intend for the law to enable entities like Google to hide behind the shield of safe harbor, under the guise of “innovation and free expression”–while simultaneously make (lots of) money monetizing stolen content?   I doubt it.

Even the advertising industry recognizes that this is a area of concern.  In May of last year The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the America Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) issued a statement entitled,  “Best Practices to Address Online Piracy and Counterfeiting.”   The statement included the following:

 (i) All such intermediaries shall use commercially reasonable measures to prevent ads from being placed on such sites;

(ii) All such intermediaries shall have and implement commercially reasonable processes for removing or excluding such sites from their services, and for expeditiously terminating non-compliant ad placements, in response to reasonable and sufficiently detailed complaints or notices from rights holders and advertisers;

(iii) All such intermediaries shall refund or credit the advertiser for the fees, costs and/or value associated with non-compliant ad placements, or provide alternative remediation.

So, back to Google.  Would a “reasonable measure” include removing AdSense ads from a site reported for piracy?  What about reimbursing the advertiser who paid Google for these “non-compliant” ads and how does the fact Blogger is a Google-hosted site factor in?  Should ad services do business with hosts that routinely serve pirated ads?  In other words,  should Google (AdSense) do business with itself (Blogger) if they are to honor these “best practices?”

My head is spinning.  I guess that’s just the way the powers that be at Google like it.

 

This story originally posted on my other blog, voxindie.org. 

Jan 21

Mega Goes Live but Business Model Remains Murky

dotcom-faceKim Dotcom’s much ballyhooed new venture, Mega, has gone live. and is, according to a tweet from the mastermind himself, already wildly popular, “250,000 user registrations. Server capacity on maximum load. Should get better when initial frenzy is over. Wow!!!”  It’s no great surprise that there’s a lot of early interest in site, but the real question going forward is whether anti-piracy activists should be running scared?  For now, it seems too early to tell.  The key to whether this new cloud-based file-sharing site will become the new nexus for online piracy depends on what business model is used, and at this point, it’s difficult to decipher exactly how this will all play out.

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 11.50.04 AMThere are already various cloud-based file-sharing sites, similar to the “new” Mega–sites DropBox and YouSendIt that already allow users to easily share large files across the web.  However, unlike Kim Dotcom’s now-defunct Megaupload site, these services do not incentivize uploads.   In other words,  in contrast to cyberlocker favored by pirates, these legit sites don’t offer cash rewards based on the number of times a file is downloaded.  As a result, most people who use these cloud-based file-sharing services do so because they have actual business to conduct, or seek to share files with family or friends.

Certainly some file-sharing that’s technically “illegal” takes place, but without cash carrots offered to uploaders, it’s relatively inconsequential in terms of the big picture.   The success of DropBox and YouSendIt is not predicated on the need to draw traffic and generate ad clicks.  Theirs is a business model that does not incentivize piracy on a viral scale.

Perusing the new Mega website, I found some references to its planned business model, but no mention (yet) of any individual “partner” rewards programs like those found in its previous incarnation.  Below is a solicitation for “Mega Storage Node” partners (located outside the United States).  This program seems focused on attracting additional host companies that wish to integrate Mega’s infrastructure into their own businesses.

mega storage node.019

The new “Mega” is seeking partners to become a “storage node.”

Like Megaupload, Mega also offers tiered  “Pro-memberships” which offer users greater storage and speed options.  Prices range from $9.99 per month to $29.99 per month.

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 1.06.46 PM

Although the new site has established its operations (and servers) outside of the United States, Mega’s “Terms of Service” does feature boilerplate language regarding intellectual property and copyright.

mega terms of service.021

Note that Mega’s terms also includes language that includes references to protecting its own IP.  

Our IP

13. The license that we give you to use the website and our services does not give you the right, and you can’t reproduce or use any of our copyright, intellectual property or other rights other than for the purposes of using the services and the website or as allowed under any open source licences under which we use intellectual property provided by others. The open source code that we use, where we obtained it, and licences for that code are all referenced in our FAQ.

14. You are not allowed to, and you can’t let anyone else, copy, alter, distribute, display, licence, modify or reproduce, reverse assemble, reverse compile (whether digitally, electronically, by linking, or in hard copy or by any means whatsoever) or use any of our copyright, intellectual property or other rights without getting our permission first in writing, unless in order to use our services and the website or as allowed under any open source licences under which we use intellectual property provided by others. The open source code that we use, where we obtained it, and licences for that code are all referenced in our FAQ.

At the moment the new site, not surprisingly, is running as slow as molasses due to heavy traffic.  It remains to be seen if, and how, its presence will impact the online piracy landscape going forward. Right now this new site doesn’t seem all that revolutionary.  For the end-user, it’s just another cloud storage solution.

No matter what transpires, Dotcom is clearly relishing his moment back in the spotlight.  He’s already busy tweaking Hollywood posting this Tweet and image a couple of days ago.  Despite his self-important cockiness, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think he’ll be getting the last laugh.

dotcom mpaa tease.022

Though Dotcom would likely disagree, when U.S. law enforcement took his popular Megaupload offline a year ago, it  marked a significant  turning point in the battle against online piracy.   Since then real progress has been made.   Copy-cat sites that modeled the success of Dotcom’s business model closed their doors.  At the same time, more options for timely and legitimate online distribution of movies and music emerged–options both profitable for creators and affordable for consumers. Advertisers and payment processors have also stopped partnering with some remaining pirate cyberlocker sites, diminishing their profits and popularity.  Other companies, such as Google, have also had to address their role in aiding, abetting and profiting from piracy.  Overall, the lure of online piracy as a cottage industry has been greatly diminished.

Maybe Dotcom’s new Mega will be legit, maybe not.  The world will be watching, but I’m not too worried.  At least not yet.

 

Originally posted at voxindie.org

Jan 14

Content Leeches-The Dark Underbelly of YouTube’s Content Monetization

pirate-leech-4Black 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.

Screen Shot 2013-01-12 at 5.48.47 PMI 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.

rich trailer channel page.009

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:

gayby claim.008

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.

perfect ending YT trailer.011

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?”

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 7.58.15 PM

Wizdeo’s terms for acceptance in their partner program includes the following language:

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…

Screen Shot 2013-01-10 at 11.32.28 AM

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.

YouTube also specifically includes movie “trailers” in its explanation of “what is copyright:”

Some examples of potentially infringing content are:

  • TV shows
  • 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
  • Commercials
  • 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” for business for their bottom line– but the question remains, is it an ethical way of doing business?   Not so much.

 

This post was first posted on Vox Indie.

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