Ever wonder how pirate sites make money by sharing free content? Of course you haven't; like everything else online, they make their money by serving ads. And more often than not, those ads are delivered by the massive ad networks that dominate the web. But just which ad networks are providing ads–and thus revenue–for pirate sites is the focus of a new study (PDF) from USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab.
The methods are rather simple: The group compiled a list of "major" movie and music privacy sites by looking at which sites received the most DMCA takedown request via Google's own transparency report, and then created a bot to crawl those sites and identify the source network of ads by looking at each ad's HTML. The list of top ad networks is as follows:
2. Google (including Double Click)
6. Yahoo (including Right Media)
8. Media Shakers
OpenX, a huge provider of web and mobile ads, leads the list, while Google and Yahoo, which both have massive ad operations, unsurprisingly appear as well. The USC report, which it says will be updated monthly, implies that said revelation is particularly damning.
“Large Pirate [sic] sites distribute illegal content and continue to steal trademarked, copyrighted content and siphon millions of dollars away from the creative community, making it much harder for artists to make a living," said Jonathan Taplin, director of the lab, in the report. "We do not believe that government regulation alone is the answer to the Piracy problem, but rather that the self-regulation of major sectors like the online advertising industry could make it harder for the 'Kim Dotcom’s' of the world to unfairly exploit artists. We look forward to working with advertising agencies and networks in the coming months to address this issue.”
It's important to note that USC has one of the top film schools in the country, and is well-connected to Hollywood. That may explain why it's attacking ad networks for "funding" the sites that utilize their ad software, which are apparently draining artists despite Hollywood having a record year in 2012. The goal, then, is to encourage brands to cause a shitstorm with their ad networks for delivering their ads to pirate sites.
“Whenever we talk to a brand about the fact that their ads are all over the pirate sites, they’re like, ‘Oh, how did that happen?’” said Taplin, according to TorrentFreak. “We thought it would be easier if they knew what ad networks were putting ads on pirate sites — so they could avoid them.”
First, Google has already responded, saying that the methodology is flawed. "“The complexity of online advertising has led some to conclude incorrectly that the mere presence of any Google code on a site means financial support from Google,” the firm told CNET.
That response is to be expected, but the thing that seems to be lost here is that these ad networks are capable of being so large because they're opt-in services set up by users. Google, Yahoo, or whoever didn't go to Filestube to say "Hey, let us help support you guys with your evil piracy," Filestube and all the others set it up on its own, just as millions of sites have. Also, while a brand might not be happy about appearing on a piracy site, it's not a direct mechanism. A company will buy a certain block of ad impressions, and those get spread around all over the net, in most cases based off of algorithms to target them to users. So, yeah, while Company A might get grumpy that Google is putting its ads on piracy sites, maybe it should also ask itself why algorithms assume that pirates prefer Company A's products?
Now, ad networks can block domains, of course, and if you believe that's the way to choke off piracy, then sure, tell OpenX and Quantcast to do it. But implying that ad firms are complicit in their support–while noting that 86 percent of revenue for piracy sites comes from ads as if that's a revelation (I'd have expect higher, honestly), or to imply that there's some vast ad-pirate conspiracy–is misleading, and more than a bit smarmy. Still, if firms buying ad impression from the big networks start making a fuss about being delivered to pirate sites, and those networks are forced to pull out, USC's new monthly report might actually have an effect on the major players in the piracy game.