Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Everyday acts of brand heroism are required if we are to beat ad-funded pirates

By Peter Szyszko, CEO of White Bullet

To some, ad-funded piracy might sound like an obscure, marginal crime. Is anyone really getting rich from selling ad placements around pirated online content? And who are the victims? Wealthy football clubs? Hollywood studios? 

The answer is that, yes, there are millions being made, partly at the expense of big-time content owners. And if you follow the money, it is clear this is no Robin Hood situation. Ad-funded piracy is a nasty, devious business, and content owners are not its only victims. The World Federation of Advertisers tips ad fraud to become the second most lucrative form of organised crime within the next decade, behind only drug trafficking, and malware and other scams are rife on the illegal sites and apps that provide pirated access to films, TV, books, music and games.

Our data shows that around 90% of IP-infringing services run on digital ad revenue, funding their crimes out of the pockets of household-name brands. The City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) takes a muscular attitude towards ad-funded piracy. It understands that a shape-shifting problem requires a dynamic solution, which is why it recently partnered with White Bullet, for a data-focused, real-time approach. We monitor the misplaced advertising that funds these services, allowing us to alert the relevant brands to the true nature of the economy they are inadvertently subsidising.

In this ecosystem, brands have a potentially heroic role to play, and easy access to the tools that allow them to play it. By auditing their ad placements, filtering out pirate websites using dynamic lists and ensuring their ad partners remain compliant, they can turn off the tap that feeds this industry, and we can all enjoy watching it wither on the vine.

At this particular time, there is still a long way to go. Ad impressions on pirate websites rose by 43% between Q4 of 2019 and Q1 2020, as lockdown settled on us and bored consumers trawled for free content. During this period, with more eyeballs finding their way to fraudulent sites, the ads of a remarkable number of premium brands continued to inadvertently fund this piracy. 

Brands have important things on their minds at the moment, and mistargeted ads are not always among them. In a survey conducted in Q1 2020, White Bullet found that 57% of premium brands continue to pour ad spend into copyright-infringing websites despite being given clear evidence that their ads have been misplaced.

Of those, 7% refused to engage at all, saying they had more important matters to deal with than piracy. Many of these are among the top supporters of pirate websites by ad volume. 

We are heartened, all the same, by the 43% of brands who are working to ensure their ads go nowhere near this type of content, for their own safety and that of consumers. 

How can brands help? 

  1. Check where your ads are going – seek ad placement auditing data that also covers your ad partners’ own partners 
  2. Ensure ad partners filter out pirate websites – demand up-to-date dynamic pirate list feeds 
  3. Ensure ad partners remain compliant. Protect your brand at all times and across all digital ad campaigns

The technology now available to us and to PIPCU is formidable, based on independent web crawling and an always-learning engine that identifies and scores infringing websites and apps and tracks their advertising. 

The good news is, we know for certain how to break this business. But it calls for a team effort between law enforcement, technology companies like ours, scrupulous brands and their digital ad partners.

There is an increasing sense of urgency about this stage of the fight. If ad-funded piracy continues to thrive in the dark corners of the internet, there is a very real threat of legal enforcement against infringing advertisers. 

That is in no-one’s interests. Far better for all brands to add advertising supply-chain housekeeping to their list of must-do jobs. With their help and that of PIPCU and regulators like TAG, we can smash the pirates, keep our brands and consumers safe and keep the censorious hand of law enforcement well away from our own ad campaigns.