The MTP Interview: Indie Film Maker Ellen Seidler on how US companies profit from piracy on rogue websites

Popup Pirates: This is an interview with San Francisco indie film maker Ellen Seidler on her film And Then Came Lola, DMCA Hell, Google Adsense Sales to Pirates and more.  This interview appeared in the September 2010 edition of the MusicTechPolicy Monthly Newsletter (sign up at or by subscribing to this blog).

In 2006, MTP posted “The DMCA Is Not An Alibi: The Googlization of Art and Artists“.  Turns out, the DMCA really is an alibi after all.

MTP: Tell us a little about how you came to produce And Then Came Lola and who are the actors and how much you spent?

Ellen Seidler: And Then Came Lola is an indie film, a lesbian comedy/romp that stars Ashleigh Sumner and Jill Bennett (both “out” actors).  It was pretty much self-financed through typical indie film means, ie. credit cards, personal loans, etc.  All told we’ve spent about $250,000 on the film.

MTP: When you produced the film, did it occur to you that your film would be stolen?  Did you build losses from piracy into your budget as a cost of doing business?

E. Seidler: I figured there would be some piracy, but mostly of the P2P type.  I had mentioned my concerns regarding piracy to our distributors, but I don’t think anyone expected the film to be pirated at the level it has been.  Also, I think another factor is that the piracy has been somewhat transformed by the changing technology.   Now one can stream a high quality movie online without much difficulty.  That capability didn’t exist when we first started making this film.

MTP: How did you find out that your film was being stolen online?

E. Seidler: Well, about 24 hours after the DVD was released in Germany (our earliest release last April) a fan sent an email to warn us that the film was online.  That was just the beginning….

MTP: When you discovered your film was being stolen, did you ever consider that companies like Google were serving ads on pirate sites?

E. Seidler: When I first began to tackle the piracy it was mostly focused with figuring out where the illegal files were appearing and how best to get them taken down, ie. the DMCA.  It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize that advertising had a major presence on the majority of the sites featuring pirated links and streams to our film.  Given that we are still trying to pay off our production debts, it was particularly galling to find that others were actually earning revenue off our film.

MTP: How have you used the “notice and takedown” procedures of the U.S. Copyright Act?

E. Seidler:
Well, the DMCA is really the only tool we have to fight back against the illegal links and streams of our film.  We send them out on a daily basis to cyber-locker sites (ie Rapidshare, Hotfile, Megaupload, etc), webmasters, domain registrants and  Google (AdSense and Blogger)….we send them to whatever party we think can (and will) remove the infringing content.

MTP: How have infringers responded to your notices?

E. Seidler: I have to say that most, not all, of the sites respond once to our DMCA requests.  Some respond immediately while others can take up to a week to remove the files.  Of course sites in places like China and Saudia Arabia mostly ignore us.  That’s when we turn to the advertisers like Google AdSense to ask that they discontinue their relationship with the site featuring pirated versions of our film.  That effort has had mixed results.  Google will force them to remove a particular page, but the site remains active and our film usually appears on the site again within a day or so.

MTP: Your video describes notices you have sent to Google, what’s the basis for sending those notices and how has Google responded?

E. Seidler: Well, in terms of Google, the so-called “team” at Blogger is much more efficient and responsive than those who handle the AdSense DMCA notices.  I have never spoken to anyone at Google and mostly they correspond via boiler-plate emails warning that our complaint will be posted on the “Chilling Effects” website.  I assume that’s to serve as a deterrent and quasi-threat.   I say bring it on.  The only thing Google is “chilling” is our ability to earn some income off our product.

MTP: Have you ever spoken to a human at Google?

E. Seidler: No.  I’ve tried and have left messages at the number they include in their emails.

MTP: Has Google’s reaction been representative of other advertising servers you have contacted?

E. Seidler:
Web advertisers, large and small, seem loathe to respond to my queries.

MTP: Has Google sent you to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse?  If so, why and what was the reaction of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse?

E. Seidler: They’ve forwarded many of our DMCA notices there with the identifying info redacted.  I haven’t spoken to anyone there or had anyone try to contact me.

MTP: It seems that Google and other companies are knowingly selling advertising on pirate websites that exist solely to distribute stolen movies.  Aside from the fact that Google’s advertising links are embedded in the pirates web pages, do you have reason to think that Google knows that their ads are generating revenue to keep these pirate sites in business?

E. Seidler: I firmly believe Google is well-aware that many of their AdSense accounts operate via active pirate websites. Even when they are informed (by me and I assume others) of the fact that a particular domain exists merely to offer pirated content, Google does nothing to disable the AdSense account.  Google’s seems to prefer to look the other way and hide behind the curtain of “free speech.”  This isn’t about anyone’s free speech, it’s about theft.  Google is earning income off stolen goods and appears to be happy doing so.  They certainly have the resources, both human and technological,  to do a better job scrutinizing these AdSense accounts but choose not to.

MTP: How has your experience with Lola influenced your desire to fund another film?

E. Seidler: Well, there’s no way financially I could do it, nor would I want to.

Visit Ellen’s diary of her experiences with rogue sites and those who profit from them at Popup Pirates.

See also Ellen’s piece in Roll Call about the rogue sites legislation.

See also: MTP Podcast interview with Ellen Filmmaker Ellen Seidler talks with Chris Castle about her film “And Then Came Lola”, piracy and advertising on pirate websites