The global music piracy issue is a debate that refuses to dissipate, and especially in Australia where the recent Global Music Report from the IFPI demonstrated concerns that Australia, which was recognised as one of the worst illegal downloaders per capita in the world, would only increase its proclivity for illegal downloading with the roll-out of Australia’s National Broadband network.

The IFPI’s concerns were echoed by ARIA CEO Dan Rosen, commenting that copyright protection and the interests of artists needed to reman a priority, estimating that “between 30 and 40 per cent” of internet users were still accessing “unauthorised websites” over legitimate music sources such as iTunes or streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. Adding that the shift was necessary “so that the money from sales flows back to the people who created the work and not unauthorised websites.”

Part of the overall problem is that websites that promote illegal downloading and music piracy are being funded directly by online advertisers, looking to exploit the huge amounts of web traffic headed to illicit sites in search of illegal music while in turn the websites benefit from the advertising revenue.

It’s a problem that’s the focus of a new article for The Australianin which APRA|AMCOS Principal Analyst Andrew Harris suggests that “top Australian brands” are involved in the questionable practice of advertising on illegal download sites, while highlighting new international initiatives to ‘name and shame’ brands funding music piracy.

Harris writes that the Aussie companies implicated include “national supermarkets, retailers, banks, insurers, airlines, mobile phone providers, legal firms, fast food outlets and online bookmakers,” adding that whether intentionally or inadvertently, by purchasing online advertising real estate, their money is going towards the efforts of promoting illegal content.

Despite ongoing campaigns in recent years by content groups, ISPS, and governments to pass legislation to curb online piracy, including site blocking, new graduated response laws, or Telstra’s controversial plans to ‘choke’ the speeds of their internet service, Australia – like the rest of the world – has yet to develop a legal infrastructure for questionable online content. “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?'” – Jonathan Taplin, Innovation Lab

In lieu of ‘official’ government backed solutions however, campaigns in the UK have begun ‘naming and shaming’ brands, advertisers, and payment processors associated with pirated sites in a bid to attack the flow of incoming advertising revenue on which illegal sites thrive; The Australian article pointing out that one recent UK court heard that one anonymous piracy site was generating approximately US$ 25 million a year.

Music attorney Chris Castle and musician David Lowery are two such campaigners for making multinationals’ advertising involvement more transperant, many of their online discussions on Artist Rights forum The Trichordist has sparked action in the US, as The Guardian reports, which has called out the likes of Amazon, American Express, Dropbox, Netflix, Target, and Walt Disney World for advertising on pirated sites.

Additionally, the LA Times reported that jeans makers Levi’s and car manufacturer BMW both publicly announced they would retract all advertisements from pirating websites, with Coke and Samsung following suit, pulling ads from a Vietnamese piracy site after Associated Press brought the spotlight to bear on their marketing strategies.

Speaking to the LA Timesanother crusader for advertising transparency, Innovation Lab Director Jonathan Taplin says that some major brands may not be aware that they are advertising on illegal sites, as they subcontract their ad space through networking companies.

“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?'” says Taplin. “We thought it would be easier if they knew what ad networks were putting ads on pirate sites — so they could avoid them.”

One of Taplin’s cases presenting evidence that Levi’s ads were appearing on file-sharing sites was enough to trigger the clothing company to approach their ad agency and pull the plug. “When our ads were running unbeknownst to us on these pirate sites, we had a serious problem with that,” Gareth Hornberger, senior manager of global digital marketing for Levi’s, tells the LA Times.

“We reached out to our global ad agency of record, OMD, and immediately had them remove them…. We made a point, moving forward, that we really need to take steps to avoid having these problems again.”

Austin, Texas-based music and IT lawyer Chris Castle says that it the issue is about big name brands needing to be “more vigilant” about where their advertising is happening online. “If you look at [popular torrent website] IsoHunt right now… you’ll see advertising from the top brands in the world,” Castle says. “These brands are just perpetuating the people who are stealing from [the artist], and making them rich.”

Across the pond in Great Britain, artist groups have similarly highlighted how many major UK brands – including British Telecom, Tesco, Sky Bet, the National Lottery, and (in some bitter irony) Britain’s MI6 intelligence service are also advertising on music piracy sites.

There has also been pressure on payment services like Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal to block payment processing for illegal sites, reducing the sense of convenience and accessibility.

Search engine Google has also felt the squeeze from the UK’s BPI and the RIAA in the States for not doing enough to curb access to pirated music content.

In July last year, the BPI and a number of high-profile musicians composed an open letter to British PM David Cameron urging them to intervene on Google’s search engine policies, which led to the search engine giant’s announcement that they would be putting together their Copyright Transparency Report. Aimed at increasing efforts to increase the number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices and pushing illegal download sites further down its search rankings.

But following its November launch of Google Play, they came under fire again from the BPI’s chief executive Geoff Taylor who called the service hypocrticial. “We don’t think it makes any sense for them to be doing something which does support artists and then, on the other hand, undermine artists by referring consumers to illegal sites.” “…What would be much more effective is to go after the money – to remove the underpinnings, the advertising, the payment processes, from these sites.” – Theo Bertram, Google Policy Manager

Taylor’s concerns were echoed by the RIAA who were unhappy with Google’s efforts to revamp its search formula and algorithms last year that failed to live up to its Transparency Report promises to discourage users from visiting illegal music websites. “We have found no evidence that Google’s policy has had a demonstrable impact on demoting sites with large amounts of piracy,” said the RIAA report.

The RIAA’s research determined that music piracy sites “were not demoted in any significant way in the search results and still managed to appear on page one of the search results over 98 percent of the time in the searches conducted.” Highlighting that legal outlets like iTunes and Amazon only reached the top ten search results a little over half the time, while the autocomplete function suggested copyright infringing sites for 88% of searches.

In response, Google issued a statement noting it had “invested heavily in copyright tools for content owners and process takedown notices faster than ever,” adding that in the month of January “[Google] received more than 14 million copyright removal requests for Google Search, quickly removing more than 97 percent from search results.”
They also dismissed any accusations of supporting piracy, with Policy Manager, Theo Bertram stating last year, “It’s not for Google to go around the web judging what is or isn’t legal… but what our research shows is that… what would be much more effective is to go after the money – to remove the underpinnings, the advertising, the payment processes, from these sites.”
Despite their enormous online presence and power, Google needs to appease record label majors and their representatives as it looks to roll-out its own plans for a subscription based music service to complement its online storage and music platform, Google Music, which recently launched in Australia.

Closer to home, APRA|AMCOS’ Andrew Harris notes that advertising on pirated music sites “appears to be largely an oversea problem,” but that the ongoing ‘naming and shaming’ of brands in international campaigns could see results in Australia. Calling for domestic companies to “ensure they are not funding the operation of these sites either directly or through advertising partners [or] they will need to face the music very soon. And in a very damaging and very public way.”

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