Creative Policing: Confidential police report shows software giants sponsoring their own piracy

By Matei Rosca , written on July 1, 2014

From The News Desk

A confidential report seen by Pando and commissioned by the City of London Police shows that major Silicon Valley corporations, and other companies, are unwittingly sponsoring piracy through pay-par click adverts on websites whose users share copyrighted content. The report also shows how the United Kingdom’s piracy-fighting strategy is turning more technical.

Using data gathering, web crawling and a points system, the City of London Police, in partnership with virtually all the big intellectual property stakeholders, is now able to quantify a website’s profits from advertising and measure how much pirate content it enables being shared. The police then sends letters which look like cease-and-desist orders but are not. Failing that, authorities lean on the domain registrars in the hope they will shut down offending sites.

The private sector organisations that joined the City of London Police in this crusade are BPI – representing the British music industry, the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) – representing the British film industry, the Publisher’s Association and most of the advertising trade organisations in the country.

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, the City of London Police is not to be confused with the Metropolitan Police – which serves the whole of London. The former only serves a small but highly valuable patch of central London, known as the City of London Corporation -- including much of London's financial district. As such, the force has intimately close ties with the world of big business. It also has a patchy history of understanding piracy: its boss, Commissioner Andrew Leppard once falsely claimed that TOR sites are 90 percent of the Internet.  Who better, then,  to devise and implement an effective, high-profile anti-piracy strategy that goes way beyond the normal Square Mile jurisdiction of the City?

Marked “private and confidential” the report shows how City of London Police tracked the flow of advertising money to likely websites over a period of three months between June and September 2013.

The report identifies four distinct groups of advertising revenue made by the 61 monitored sites: over the duration of the inquiry, seven of them had “consistently higher profile” adverts, ie frequent display ads from established brands, 24 had infrequent appearances of well-known brands (“lower profile”), there were six sites that had “no clear pattern” of automated advertising and another 24 which did their own advertising without using pay-per-click services.

‘Operation Creative’ – the enforcement activity resulting from the report in question - analyses the degree to which a website is infringing. In the case of significant offenders, officers will contact the owners of the site to give them a sermon, and then write strongly-worded letters to domain registrars in order to convince them to shut down their client’s sites.

However, the recent case of shows that the approach of the police might rest more on intimidation powers than legal ones. The site went offline for just one day until Polish lawyers working on its behalf showed that the takedown was illegal.

A side-note in the report shows how effective the force's anti-piracy measures have been so far: A total of two video-streaming sites had “transitioned to non‐infringing content."

Not that the para-legal bullying tactics were completely ineffective, though: A total 41 sites were shut by the registrars under police persuasion, the report says. Yet at the time of writing, only thirteen of the 41 were not operational under the listed domains and only one appeared as being under indictment by police.

An amusing twist to the anti-piracy campaign is the list of brand names which advertise on the pirate sites, mainly through intermediary services like Google Adwords. The list includes respectable brand names like Microsoft, Adobe, Verizon, AT&T, American Express, the World Food Programme, Ladbrokes, British Petroleum, Travelodge, Ford, Lexus, Betwin, Sprint, Three Mobile, Esquire, Dick’s, and MoneyGram. In other words, brands who lose millions of dollars each year through piracy are amongst those helping to financially support infringing sites.

Because Microsoft and Adobe are known to lose a particularly great deal from the illegal use of their products, they are worth special attention. The Federation Against Software Theft, a lobbying organisation, found that in 2013 the most pirated software in the UK was that produced by Microsoft – with 24 percent of Windows and Office copies in the country lacking proper license. Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop were 16 percent pirated. Worldwide, the latest BSA Global Piracy Survey (2011) said that 57 percent of users are personal-use pirates. It’s doubtless that this includes many more a bootleg copy of Microsoft and Adobe programs.

Why then, would those companies allow ads for Microsoft Outlook or Adobe Creative Suite to appear on sites like Isohunt, ebooklink (now blocked in the UK) or – download sites which provide platforms for sharing illegal copies of their own products?

Pando contacted their press offices in the UK and the US asking for comment. Microsoft has yet to reply, but Adobe made a statement inferentially admitting they have no clue where a lot of their digital advertising money goes: “Thank you for alerting us that you saw an Adobe ad on a site containing pirated materials. This was not an intentional placement. We have blacklisted this site for any future purchase of media inventory,” their PR agent wrote.