Sites such as Pirate Bay often portray themselves as altruistic, non-profit “freedom fighters”, when the truth is they’re nothing of the sort – their exploitation of artists for their own monetary gain is far worse than the most unscrupulous labels ever were, as they pocket large sums of ad revenue without having to invest it into developing the content they flog.The Pirate Bay pre-trial investigation revealed email correspondence between the defendants and their “ad man”, identified as Oded in Israel, confirming the site was profitable from 2005, when investor Carl Lundström wrote: “There’s around 30,000-40,000kr flowing in per month. The cost of internet lines, server-hosting etc is less, so it [Pirate Bay] is already doing well, financially.”
And that was before they had even started taking ad revenue seriously. Oded later relayed in an email that he had met a company called Ad-Agency, that wanted to run casino and poker ads on a flat rate of $100,000 (£65,000) a month.
Of course, these days, with the help of established ad networks such as Doubleclick and Adsense, pirate sites are not only displaying ads for gambling and dating companies, but also ads for multinationals, including McDonald’s, Hyatt Hotels, Netflix and Ticketmaster. So how do these companies feel about their ad dollars going to site owners who oppress music and film creators?
Crispin Hunt (formerly of the Longpigs) recently did a quick search on Google for music he had produced and co-written with artists such as Florence & the Machine and Jake Bugg. On the first few pages he found a slew of pirate sites offering it as free downloads, while displaying ads next to it by established companies, including BT, Tesco, Sky Bet, the National Lottery – even MI6.
He decided to contact the respective companies, asking what they planned to do about it.
Camelot responded: “Please let me assure you that we take issues of this nature very seriously. Camelot’s advertising agreement states that any advertising delivered by our partners must comply with the IASH (Internet Advertising Sales Houses) code of conduct to ensure we do not advertise on inappropriate websites.
Many of the other companies sent similar replies. But this was nothing like an “isolated occurrence”, and “reminding” the partners appeared to have had little effect.
So when Hunt, who is co-chief executive of the Featured Artists Coalition, contacted BT he decided to up the ante. After relaying his concerns about his music being offered for free on pirate website hulkshare.biz with a BT ad next to it, he continued: “The licence fee for using a piece of my music to advertise your company without seeking permission, in consideration of the 1,595,796 free copies of the composition downloaded, at approx 8p per download) will be £127,663.68. Please let me know to whom I may send an invoice.”
BT replied that it had immediately instructed its media buying agency Maxus to blacklist the site, adding: “BT has an extensive list of T&Cs and blacklisted sites where BT stipulates to media owners that we are never to advertise on or have any association with the website brought to our attention by Hunt.
“These blacklisted sites include illegal download sites, sites including adult content, violence, weaponry, or any other content considered inappropriate to BT. Whilst we are adding to this list on a daily basis, newly formed sites such as this site can appear and cannot be blacklisted until it has been identified.”
It’s worth pointing out that identifying major copyright infringement sites only takes a couple of clicks with your mouse to look at the Google Transparency Report of the domains with the most Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown requests (Note that at least 97% of these requests are upheld by Google, and so they remove the URLs).
Nearly a week later, Hunt noticed BT ads were still appearing next to his music on hulkshare, alerted the company, asking again where he should send his invoice.
BT again claimed the ad no longer appeared on the website, adding: “BT has no liability for the content of the websites on which its banner ads may appear. Therefore BT will not be paying the invoice that you have mentioned.”
The question of responsibility or, indeed, liability is a contentious one. BT appears to blame the middlemen, but surely what matters is that its advertising money is distributed to sites that are serious copyright infringers.
BT ads also appear next to online gambling ads and dating ads for Russian brides and women “who just can’t say no” on sites whose owners are based in countries such as China, Belarus and Russia. Not only do the artists not want their music associated with such ads – I’d suggest BT, the National Lottery and MI6 wouldn’t either. I’d also question whether these site owners declare and pay taxes on the ad revenue they receive from them.
There are encouraging signs that some brands are taking the problem seriously. After professor Jonathan Taplin of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab published an in-depth report on advertising funding of piracy, and music attorney Chris Castle and musician David Lowery started a campaign to “name and shame” companies involved in this practice, Levi’s and BMW say their ads have been removed from pirate sites. And Coke and Samsung pulled their ads from Vietnamese site Zing.vn after the Associated Press alerted them to local and international concerns about it.
Yet, it’s an uphill battle. Hunt reports that he currently doesn’t see BT ads next to illegal downloads of his music – but sent me a screen grab of an ad for TalkTalk next to them on mp3chief.com. He has yet to receive a response from the Home Office regarding the MI6 ad.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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