Websites offering pirated content will be blocked from offering adverts from Google and other big web advertisers, in a US scheme intended to strangle illicit revenues.
The initiative will mean copyright holders from the music, film and other creative industries will be able to alert the big ad networks if their ads are appearing on sites offering links to pirated content or counterfeit goods.
The British music industry body, the BPI, is also working with the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK on a scheme that has yet to be announced which will involve a central database of piracy sites for ad networks, agencies and brands to refer to and avoid when planning campaigns.
Pirate sites often make large amounts of money from Google and other advertisers because millions of users visit their sites every month – and often have the sort of age profile that web advertisers are keen to reach.
One British site that linked to pirated content, Surfthechannel, made as much as £35,000 per month from on-site adverts before its owner was jailed. Emails from The Pirate Bay revealed ahead of its founders’ trial some years ago showed it was offered £65,000 per month to run casino and poker ads.
Such sites tend to use adverts as a revenue source because it means they don’t have to set up merchant accounts with organisations such as PayPal, Visa and Mastercard to process payments from customers who might anyway be unwilling to pay them for content.
In July 2012, Google collaborated with British collecting society PRS for Music and BAE Systems Detica on research which indicated that advertising funded 86% of music filesharing sites.
That has led to campaigns by musicians including David Lowery and former Longpigs vocalist Crispin Hunt to stop advertising networks and major brands allowing their adverts on pirate sites.
A study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Laboratory in January found that Google and Yahoo were two of the biggest advertisers on pirate sites. Though both companies include clauses in their contracts forbidding sites from displaying their ads if they help piracy, the responsibility for checking tends to lie with the owner of pirated content.
The new scheme, for which content owners in Hollywood and the music industry have been pushing for some time, was brokered by the US Intellectual Property Enforcement co-ordinator Victoria Espinel and ad industry body the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). The participants include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, 24/7 Media, Adtegrity, Condé Nast and SpotXchange.
“We believe that this is a positive step and that such efforts can have a significant impact on reducing online piracy and counterfeiting,” said Espinel in a statement, while warning the ad networks to respect “privacy, free speech, fair process, and competition” when implementing the guidelines.
The networks will use “best practice” guidelines to prevent their ads appearing on sites accused of facilitating digital piracy and physical counterfeiting of goods.
But it is unclear how actively they will police sites that haven’t been reported to them by rights-holders. Comments by Dave Jacobs, AOL Networks senior vice president of publisher sales, suggested music and video copyright holders will still be expected to find and report sites.
“The best practices are intended to encourage and supplement, not replace, responsible and direct independent actions taken by intellectual property owners to enforce their intellectual property rights and are not intended to impose a duty on any ad network to monitor its network to identify offending websites,” Jacobs said.
However, Google’s vice president of public policy and government relations, Susan Molinari, said the search giant is proactive: “In 2012, we disabled ad serving to 46,000 sites for violating our policies on copyright infringing content, and shut down more than 82,000 accounts for attempting to advertise counterfeit goods,” she said. “Nearly 99% of our account suspensions were discovered through our own detection efforts and risk models.”
The BPI scheme has been in progress for a while. “I think we’ve all been a bit slow to get to grips with this, perhaps because we were focused on other targets,” said BPI chief director Geoff Taylor in May.
The BPI has chosen to focus its energies in recent years on blocking individual piracy sites, going to the high court to force ISPs to block The Pirate Bay, Newzbin2, Kickass Torrents and others.
The debate over so-called “ad-sponsored piracy” has been rumbling for some time, particularly within the music industry, where Lowery has been a prominent campaigner highlighting the appearance of big brands’ banner ads on piracy sites.
“If the future of music really is access to songs, rather than owning as many as we do nowadays, those services are all advertising-supported, and they’re competing with these illegitimate sites for these ads,” said Lowery at a public debate on the topic in May. “Spotify and Pandora should have probably rightfully got that advertising money.”