The Ongoing Fight Against Digital Piracy
In February 2017, two of the largest global search engines, Google and Bing, pledged to implement a program to demote sites offering pirated content within the search results carried out by UK users. Intended to make it more difficult for users to find and access illegal content such as pirated films, music and streamed video content, the initiative augments existing measures such as the blocking of sites determined to offer infringing material, and reducing the number of advertisements served on such sites. These strategies are all intended to encourage users to access digital content via legitimate sources, which not only protects the revenues of content producers, but also protects Internet users from the malicious content that may exist on non-legitimate provider websites.
Digital piracy (i.e. the unauthorized use, distribution or reproduction of electronic content that is protected by copyright) is an enormous and growing issue that affects content providers in a range of industries, including music, movies, TV, software and publishing. A 2011 study found that digital piracy cost the global economy up to $75 billion, a figure which was predicted to increase up to $240 billion by 2015. In an updated study published this year, the global value of digital piracy in 2015 was estimated to have been $213 billion ($160bn in film, $29bn in music and $24bn in software), projected to rise to between $384 billion and $856 billion by 2022, with the number of job losses associated with the combined economic effects of piracy and counterfeiting set to approach 5 million. In total, almost a quarter (approximately 23.8%) of all Internet traffic globally has been estimated (as of 2011) to pertain to the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted content, with a 2013 study finding that 432 million unique Internet users had explicitly sought infringing content during the month of January of that year, associated with 13.9 billion recorded page views on piracy-focused websites.
There are two distinct classes of Internet technologies which are primarily used to facilitate the sharing of pirated content online: ‘cyberlockers’ (or ‘one-click download’ sites), which allow the uploading of digital files that can subsequently be downloaded (or streamed directly) by other users, and ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) technologies, which allow the sharing of digital files between users connected to a type of specialized network.
Cyberlockers are a type of ‘cloud’ storage service, a category of service which also includes legitimate file-sharing applications. However, cyberlockers that are specifically intended to facilitate the sharing of copyright-protected content typically feature a number of factors which distinguish them from legitimate service providers. These characteristics may include:
- Offers of reward schemes to users uploading popular content
- Extensive use of advertising which may be malicious or deliberately misleading
- A lack of limits on file-storage space and access rights to files
A 2014 study examining 30 of the most popular cyberlocker sites suggested that at least 79% of files on direct-download cyberlockers, and at least 84% of files on streaming cyberlockers, were infringing. Content on cyberlockers is most frequently found by Internet users either through the use of dedicated ‘cyberlocker link’ sites, or via direct search-engine queries.
P2P file-sharing networks come in a variety of types, though one of the most common protocols for P2P file-sharing currently is BitTorrent, accounting for more than half of the total proportion of the Internet traffic dedicated to file-sharing, since 2013. As with other technologies that can be used for sharing pirated material, users are able to identify content of interest on BitTorrent networks via the use of indexing sites.
Ironically, the very measures which are being taken by search engines to make it more difficult for general Internet users to access infringing material can similarly make it less straightforward for content providers to locate unauthorized sources of their copyrighted material, and thus determine the scale of the piracy issues they may be experiencing.
Consequently, it is incredibly beneficial for any brand owners involved in the production or distribution of digital content to implement a dedicated piracy-protection program as part of their brand-protection strategy. Such programs, which can be carried out by the content providers themselves, or in partnership with a specialized brand-protection service provider, can assist with the identification of sources of infringing content (particularly in cases where they may not easily be identifiable via the use of search engines) and, with subsequent enforcement action, have these illegal sources deactivated.
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