Copyright Piracy

Streaming pirates and broadcasters have a lot in common – with one big difference

Contrary to the popular saying, crime does sometimes pay. Based on our own research, the top pirate web domains – the ones people turn to when they don’t want to pay to watch the football, the boxing, the new Hollywood film – earn around $7 million in ad revenue annually.

So there’s money in crime, but that doesn’t mean crime is necessarily easy. Just like legitimate operators, pirates have a business to run, and it’s clear they are committed to their work. They hook their sites up to programmatic ad channels to generate revenue. They promote their product through search and social media – building a brand, acquiring an audience. Some even sell subscriptions.

Then there is the more technical side: they develop apps, create mirror sites to evade blocking orders, and constantly obscure and relaunch their activities to stay ahead of the authorities.

In other words, give or take a few wrong-side-of-the-law contingencies, pirates have a lot of the same operational challenges as legal broadcasters, and many of the same tools at their disposal to market and monetise their channels. You might almost admire their style.

But the glaring difference between the legitimate broadcasters and the illegal streaming companies is that the outlaws don’t pay a penny for the content they distribute. That’s a big item off the balance sheet, and it’s the reason why they thrive, and why their success does so much harm. When you are stealing and re-selling someone else’s product, fees, royalties and regulation don’t mean a great deal to you.

Given the popularity of illegal streaming, it’s tempting to conclude that those things don’t mean a great deal to many viewers either. What could we possibly steal from the billionaire football clubs, the multi-millionaire promoters and the broadcasting conglomerates that they couldn’t afford to lose?

But the fact is, IP doesn’t only benefit the rich. It bankrolls the creation of all sport, all art, and pays both big salaries and small ones. The criminal operators who siphon off their own ill-gotten share of the proceeds may look like Robin Hood figures, liberating content from the hands of those who would charge for it, but they owe their entire existence to the legitimate channels whose content they are hijacking.

It’s World Intellectual Property Day today (April 26), shining an annual light on the role intellectual property plays in the global economy and the work it does in protecting the interests of customers, culture, SMEs – even the environment and indigenous communities. If nothing else, it offers a reminder of how broad the benefits of IP actually are.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a fan streaming a Champions League match to think very hard about the economy such activities disrupt at all levels. But like the recent European Super League proposal so many fans hated, this kind of IP infringement reduces the amount of money that trickles down through sport to smaller teams and grass-roots initiatives. And like the football agents of whom so many disapprove, it drains enormous sums from the game without conspicuously putting anything in.

And that’s just football. The unfortunate fact is, all industries show a similar pattern of revenue disruption when pirates get their claws in.

As a company that devotes huge time and expertise to tracking and monitoring the ever-shifting sprawl of copyright-infringing content on the internet, we get to see it for what it is: a systematic criminal enterprise that leeches vast, quantifiable sums from IP owners all over the world, and the industries, wages and ongoing innovations that depend on them. The fact that these pirates are organised, even professional, shouldn’t obscure their negative impact.

So, on behalf of rights owners, authorities and right-thinking companies in the ad chain, we continue to work to attack the basis of their business, de-indexing pirates from search engines, demonetising them by cutting off their ad supply. And because we survey the entire landscape, we can do much of this in real time, cutting the revenue lines and marketing channels on which they depend, often within hours of detecting illegal activity.

Crime pays, but it does so with money that, in the proper hands, could have done a lot of good. We might never entirely stop it, but we can all stop supporting it, and some of us will keep on doing our best to fight it.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Piracy

Let’s be clear – it’s difficult to make a living in any creative pursuit. However, it’s especially difficult to make a living as an author.

Say you have the temerity to actually, against all odds, write a book – which, for most people, takes years of toil and strife. Now, you actually have to get it published. These days, most of the major publishing houses will not even consider unsolicited material, which means you’ll need to get your book into the hands of an agent. Or, you could try querying a smaller house. Either way, you’ll be sending the manuscript to an office that receives thousands of submissions every year (this agent claims she receives upwards of 10,000 annually, and that she is far from alone) and accepts only a tiny percentage for representation or publication.

If you defy the odds and actually make a sale – you’re killing it. But, hold off on putting a down payment on a beach house, or even on a basement studio apartment, for that matter – the average payout for a first-time book deal advance is $1,000 to $10,000, and that’s before taxes and whatever percentage is owed to your hypothetical agent.

That’s not to say breaking in as an author is any easier or more difficult than finding monetary success in other creative pursuits, such as filmmaking or music – but the payout can be significantly lower and the work takes just as long, if not longer. And what’s more, in perhaps the cruelest twist of fate of all, digital thieves show no mercy for underpaid authors. A recent study by the Authors Guild found that $300 million is lost annually to book piracy in the United States alone.

Where streaming has become the go-to method of pirating film and television, book pirates have to get a bit more creative with their literary looting. Fortunately for them, the internet, and its bog of unaccountable platforms, is here to help. As this Book Riot article demonstrates, book pirates have no shortage of ways to do their dastardly deed in the digital era. They might scan entire books and sell the PDFs on eBay, or download ebooks by purchasing them from Amazon, then strip their DRM codes, refund the legitimate purchase, and sell the stripped files through their own outlets. Some of these outlets include entire websites (often located overseas) devoted to book piracy.

And streaming piracy does impact books. A simple search for “full audiobook” on YouTube brings up an endless list of illegally uploaded audiobooks, in their entirety, written by major authors including Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park), and Timothy Ferriss (The 4-Hour Work Week). Some of these pirated videos have hundreds of thousands of views – but an author who sees a pirated audiobook viewed even a few thousand times is losing crucial revenue when what used to garner a $50,000 advance now garners a $10,000 advance.

The “most vulnerable authors,” writes Good e-Reader editor Michael Kozlowski, “are those who write series: when book one does well, but book two is heavily pirated, book three could end up dead in the water. Midlist authors, and those who barely scrape a living are also at risk.”

Those “who barely scrape a living” from writing books are pretty much everyone who writes books – at least in the early stages of their career. Piracy threatens to squelch these fledgling scribes before they’ve had a chance to take flight. But, it doesn’t just ruin livelihoods – it also suppresses indie voices, small presses, and diversity itself.

“Especially in the cases of small and mid-list authors, [piracy] often means that they stop being commercially viable, and their publishers let them go,” wrote Chocolat novelist Joanne Harris in a recent blog post. “It also hurts small publishers, and makes them less likely to survive in the face of their big competitors. It means less choice, fewer risks being taken by publishers to promote new, or diverse authors. It means more lucrative, ghostwritten books by white, high-profile celebrities, and fewer books by those Big Publishing considers to be a commercial risk: that’s LGBTQ people, people of color, and diverse voices in general.”

Books, more than any other medium, are vessels of expansive thought and discourse. Whether one is writing a romance novel, a tome about financial literacy, or a history of an ancient civilization, they have the space to roam, to expand, and to support their ideas with the kind of substance you just can’t find in other forms of creative expression. Now, more than ever, we need as many diverse and compelling writers to find success as possible, but their livelihoods are under attack.

“I can get any novel that I want in about 30 seconds,” an interviewee bragged to The Guardian in 2018, in a lengthy feature article about book piracy. “If I can’t, I know people in my dark little corner of the internet that can find ANYTHING that is asked for. It’s incredible, really.”

Sure, The Guardian is a British publication, but readers in America have the exact same internet tools available, and many are using them to do irreparable harm to an industry that supports more than 60,000 jobs. It’s particularly frustrating when you consider that book pirates, no matter what their financial situation is, have literally no excuse for stealing as they do. Nearly everyone has access to a vast and invaluable repository of literature that costs absolutely nothing to access – it’s called the LIBRARY. It has more free books than anyone could ever hope to read in a lifetime, and it’s 100% legal to check out all of them.

Why would someone with such an incredible, free resource at their disposal still choose theft? Because, in the modern era, it is easier to steal a book than it is to go to a library and pick that same title up, or even to place a digital hold on it (a feature nearly every major library system now offers). It is far too easy to find pirated audiobooks on YouTube because YouTube has no legal incentive to change this sad situation. It is far too simple to use Google to find websites that traffic in stolen book files because the law fails to hold the company accountable for what their search results dig up.

Instead of stealing, would-be pirates need to use the vast, legal resources available to them in order to support an industry that is truly being ripped apart by copyright infringement. In the case of libraries, it wouldn’t even cost them a dime – isn’t that what drives them toward piracy in the first place?

It’s time that pirates stop hurting creatives – who are guilty of nothing but creating the wonderful stories they love.

This article was originally published in Creative Future.


Tightening The Screws On Pirate Websites Through Dynamic Website Blocking Injunctions

A pirate site is blocked through a court order yet like a chameleon it changes its colour (and IP address or URL) and is back up again tomorrow under a different guise. This is the reality that rights-holders have to face repeatedly in dealing with slippery pirate operators. But relief is coming.

In an important new development in India, the Delhi High Court recently issued a decision that allows rights-holders to seek “dynamic injunctions” against Indian ISPs. This requires them to block access to the spin-off “mirror” websites that typically appear as a result of the blocking of a primary offshore site that is providing copyright infringing content. Dynamic injunctions avoid the classic “whack-a-mole” problem where no sooner has a court issued an injunction against a specified website, than a clone hosted in some other unreachable jurisdiction pops up providing the same pirated content. Sometimes users seeking the original “free” content are even redirected to the mirror site. The Washington DC-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has prepared a detailed report of the Indian decision and its impact on India’s important film industry, focussing particularly on the dynamic injunction aspect. According to the ITIF;


“Just as website blocking is a pragmatic reflection of a country’s efforts to use injunction orders to get local ISPs to block access to piracy websites hosted overseas (and outside its jurisdiction), dynamic injunctions reflect the fact these same operators can subvert a court’s decisions by shifting targeted piracy operations to alternative websites. The goal of using dynamic injunctions as part of a website blocking system is not just to combat online piracy, but also to change consumers’ behavior by raising the cost—in terms of time and willingness to find alternatives sites and circumvention tools—to make the legal sources of content more appealing.


The intellectual property website IP Kat has also covered the case and notes that;


The judgement marks a significant advancement in curbing the menace of online piracy. It introduces certain novel ways of tackling the problem (such as) grant(ing) the power to the plaintiffs, with the approval of the Joint Registrar, to update the list of blocked websites by adding the names of mirror/redirect/alphanumeric websites.


IP Kat continues by saying;


This is a very practical solution, as one of the most apparent difficulties in tackling online piracy is the ability of pirated websites to produce mirror websites within seconds. As the power to update the list of blocked websites is now available without extensive procedures required for a new application, this will make blocking mirror websites easier and more effective. This is the most important aspect of the judgment as it substantially reduces the resources required for blocking every mirror infringing website.


The Indian court decision builds on precedents in Australia, the UK and Singapore. In Australia, new legislation, the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Act, 2018, came into force in December of last year. It does a couple of important things to tighten up Australia’s already quite effective site-blocking legislation, Section 115A of the Copyright Act, introduced in 2015. That legislation introduced measures to enable copyright owners to seek an injunction from the Federal Court to require ISPs (known as Carriage Service Providers in Australia) to block access to offshore pirate websites that have the primary purpose of infringing or facilitating the infringement of copyright. Since that time, Australian content owners and carriage providers worked out a modus vivendi that saw a nominal fee agreed upon for the blocking process, while the providers ceased to oppose the orders.

The amendments introduced last year carried this a step further by adding “primary effect” to “primary purpose”, by extending the provision to search engines and by allowing for more responsive orders to be issued by the Court. What does “more responsive orders” mean exactly?

One Australian legal website explains it thus;


As noted in the explanatory memorandum to the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2018, one of the limitations of the earlier legislation is that operators of online locations could attempt to avoid injunctions under section 115A by using another domain name, creating a new URL for the same content or obtaining a new IP address. To address this, the Act includes new provisions which allow the Court to make more responsive orders as part of an injunction application.”


In other words, the court will widen the application of the injunctions to capture mirror websites without the rights-holders having to go back to the court to initiate a new application each time the injunction is modified (subject to overall court oversight). This streamlining, as in India, is the key to effective disabling of pirate sites. Recently the Court also agreed to allow content providers to reduce the lead time required when it notifies ISPs of renewals of blocking orders.

Another element of the new 2018 legislation was to extend the application of the law to search engines, requiring them to de-index sites blocked by court order. Google fought long and hard against this measure, arguing that it was unnecessary. However, with the passage of the law (and the re-election of the government that enacted it), Google has undergone a sudden conversion (or is it a tactical shift?) to voluntarily get with the program. Better to do it voluntarily rather than be forced to do it by law seems to have been Google’s calculation.

The UK has also experimented successfully with flexible application of site blocking, particularly with regard to sports broadcasting, where rights-holders can seek court orders requiring ISPs to block pirated streaming feeds of games, like English Premier League soccer, in real-time. This requires a broad blocking order that will cover proxy and primary sites as well as servers streaming pirate content. ITIF has an excellent blogpost explaining exactly how this works technically.

Does this frustrate soccer fans who have tried to avoid paying their local content provider to watch the big game? Absolutely, and that is the point. It is very frustrating to see the screen go dark just as the winning goal is about to be scored. The same principle applies to dynamic site blocking injunctions. As the frustration level of users rises each time the proxy site they go to returns a “not found” result, the more likely they are to accept the inevitable solution—one that is the default in the offline world. Pay for the content that you consume.

While dynamic injunctions are a relatively new phenomenon, the principle of disabling access to offshore pirate websites is well established with more than 40 countries having implemented an administrative or legal process to enable this to happen. Most recently, the Parliamentary Committee holding hearings on the review of Copyright Act in Canada recommended that;


the Government of Canada consider evaluating tools to provide injunctive relief in a court of law for deliberate online copyright infringement”.


As I commented in a blog posting on the Committee’s report, this is a positive step forward, albeit not as concrete as advocates of site blocking in Canada would have preferred. A broad coalition of content providers (and some ISPs) had earlier made a proposal that an administrative mechanism for piracy site blocking be established under the auspices of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications regulator, the CRTC. The CRTC however declined to accept the proposal, arguing that it did not have jurisdiction, and punted the issue to Parliament to deal with under Copyright Act review. Now the Committee reviewing the legislation has taken a position, recognizing that there is a problem that needs to be addressed:


“The Committee…agrees that there is value in clarifying within the Act that rights-holders can seek injunctions to deny services to persons demonstrably and egregiously engaged in online piracy, provided there are appropriate procedural checks in place.”


If such a process is established, it is unlikely to include dynamic injunctions, at least not initially, but the experience of other countries is that once a site blocking mechanism is in place, it will not only prove its worth, it will demonstrate that the various arguments deployed against it (e.g. it will undermine net neutrality, it will damage the functioning of the internet, it will be too expensive to implement, it will lead to unwarranted censorship etc.) are unfounded. As the use of site blocking becomes more routine, fine-tuning it to avoid the evasive tactics of the pirate content providers is the next step, which is why dynamic blocking injunctions are becoming more widely accepted.

Maybe one day, Canada (and the US for that matter) will catch up with India, Australia and others in the application of reasonable legal remedies to combat the tactics of distributors of pirated, infringing, unlicensed content. These offshore operators have long played a cat-and-mouse game with providers of legitimate content. It is now time for the cat to sharpen its claws.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

This article was originally published in Hugh Stephens Blog

Featured Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash