If you’re tuned into the music-tech-policy punditsphere, you’ve probably come across debates about “brand-supported piracy.” Put simply, this is when major corporations have their products advertised on sites that offer music, movies and TV shows to which they don’t have the rights. This doesn’t sit well with creators and content companies, who are frustrated at third parties making money from unauthorized access to their works.
As longtime champions of a legitimate digital marketplace where artists are compensated and fans can easily find lawful content, we understand the concerns.
The issue is definitely starting to heat up. There are some loud voices in the music community deriding major brands appearing on sites that facilitate piracy. Others, including the companies whose algorithms power these networks (such as Google and Yahoo!), say it’s not so cut-and dry.
Recently, the New York Times addressed the issue in an article by Ben Sisario. The piece references a new study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab that “ranked 10 ad networks on the amount of business they do with sites suspected of engaging in piracy, with Google and Yahoo placing high on the list.”
There’s no doubt that the online ad marketplace is complex, involving, as Sisario describes, “web sites, ad servers, digital publishers and agency trading desks” that move at an incredibly fast clip. But as critics of the current ecosystem point out, brands successfully avoid their products being served on pornographic sites — why should pirate platforms be any different?
[Annenberg] researchers studied the fragments of computer code that were appended to the ads they found on sites suspected of piracy over a year. The sites were drawn from a report by Google listing sites that had received the most complaints from copyright holders.
Representatives of Google and OpenX, two of the largest companies on U.S.C.’s list, did not deny the prevalence of their codes. But they disputed its meaning, saying that their technology is widely used by third parties — like ad agency trading desks and advertisers — so the presence of their code did not necessarily implicate them in a transaction.
Creators and rightsholders likely don’t care about these details — they just want the activity to stop. And we imagine that major brands like Levi’s or Toyota aren’t too keen on having their ads appear on pirate sites, either. Meanwhile, companies like Google are frequently in negotiations with rightsholders to license content for services like Google Play, so it may be in their long-term benefit to not offend their content industry partners. All of this is to say, if there is a problem with brand-supported piracy, it’s in the best interest of all parties to address it.
In the post-SOPA legislative environment, it’s unlikely that Congress will jump into the fray. This would leave the various players to come to work with each other towards a solution. But that doesn’t mean the government can’t play a role. In fact, there is some prior precedent. Take, for example, the “Payment Processor Best Practices for Online Copyright Infringement” — a 2011 arrangement brokered by the administration’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, Victoria Espinel. That agreement between copyright owners and payment system operators — think credit card companies and PayPal — encouraged members of the private sector to take voluntary measures to address intellectual property and copyright infringement online. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that ad service networks, agencies, brands and rightsholders could agree to a similar set of best practices.
It’s crucial that the legitimate digital marketplace continues to grow. It’s clear that in order for this to happen, there needs to be greater cooperation between all players in the online ecosystem. We’re confident that the issue of ads, brands and pirate sites can be resolved; we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments.