The Seattle Weekly’s Chris Kornelis has a thoughtful article today asking why artists came together to oppose the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act but haven’t consistently been a united front against the unprecedented levels of online theft we’re all too familiar with (read “It’s Time for Artists to Fight Piracy as Vigorously as They’ve Challenged Pandora“). This is actually a very insightful point because the alliterative piracy and Pandora are more connected than one might think.
Catching Up to the Google Propaganda Machine
Kornelis mentions David Lowery’s “Letter to Emily” which was almost universally received as a balanced and courteous discussion of the underpinnings of piracy as a culture and pointed out how successfully Big Tech has attempted to commoditize music and movies in order to sell hardware and Internet access. Nowhere is this more prevalent than Google, which has built an entire litigation and lobbying strategy around crushing artists. For example, this week Google announced it is receiving 3 million DMCA takedown notices a week for Google search alone–and that somehow that means that Google’s rights are being infringed. What that should say to people is that if there are 3 million notices sent by copyright owners who can afford to track Google 24/7, there are an untold number of notices that could be sent by copyright owners who cannot. Aside from the fact that Google has put arbitrary caps on the number of takedown notices that they will accept and those caps max out every week.
Those “have not” copyright owners are usually called independent artists.
And that doesn’t even count YouTube.
After the eye opening Google Shill List revealed the extent of Google’s financing of tax exempt front groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, trade associations and their attendant consultants like the CCIA, and Google’s efforts to disallow class certification for authors in the Google Books case so that authors could enjoy the freedom of suing Google individually on a work by work basis–you begin to get the idea of what the artists are up against.
And that’s just Google’s propaganda machine.
Why does Google spend what must be well over $1,000,000,000 by now on lobbying and litigation? Because it profits them to do so. All those DMCA notices? That’s translates into traffic Google sends to pirate sites. And we are told that it’s the artist’s fault by the former Grokster-Limewire and God knows who else lawyer Google hired from the EFF after a federal judge called him out for destroying evidence to help a massive infringer? This guy has the brass to tell us that even though the notices are 97% accurate, it’s still our fault for fighting back?
Well screw that, I say.
The Piracy-Pandora Connection
The reason why it’s good business for Google to profit from piracy is because there’s a lot of profit in piracy. Here’s how it works–Google sets up the pirate site with an Adsense account (just like they did for Megavideo) and that allows the pirate to sell its inventory to Google. Adsense accounts may have once been vetted by humans, but even then the pirate could change the URL after they got the approval. So Dimitri’s Kittens and Sunshine became a pirate site after a one-time approval.
Now that Google is working on the bottom half of the Alexa chart, they don’t make enough money from this large number of small inventory sites to justify human review. So they just set them up automatically.
(Google isn’t the only ad network or ad exchange that does this, but they are the only one that spends hundreds of millions on litigation and lobbying to do it and they have a global monopoly on their particular corner of evil.)
And so is born the unholy alliance–Pandora and other legitimate services have to compete for the same ad dollars with pirate sites that have ads by Google and are served traffic by Google and offer the same content that the legitimate sites have. So if you are Spotify or Pandora and you are trying to make a living from advertising, your real competition is not each other but is Google’s ad scheme–with pirate sites that pay no royalties.
If Google stopped serving advertising to the pirate sites, then those ad dollars would have to go somewhere. But the glut of advertising drives down the pricing that devalues music and also makes it hard for legitimate sites to compete for the same advertisers who show up on pirate sites.
The Super Award Show Season Opportunity
Kornelis also put his finger on another important issue. It doesn’t hurt to have a rallying point that is both a positive and a negative–we love Pandora, but we don’t like their bill. We want to help them to be successful, but we won’t take a cramdown.
That worked out well for artists and I think that the IRFA messaging was excellent. (Sorry, Tim.)
The ad-supported piracy issue is a little more complex, however, because so far the vast majority of people in the chain deny it’s happening. But unfortunately for them, we have pictures. USC-Annenberg is doing a corporate responsibility study. Ben Edelman at Harvard has done a vast amount of work on this issue. The unholy alliance is real and it is happening every second of every day.
I have frankly given up on getting ad agencies to take responsibility for their actions. I can understand why they don’t want to voluntarily give up rebates on ad commissions they take by steering their clients to ad inventory that the clients don’t want. (My advice would be to ask themselves whether they’d rather get reamed in Ad Age or in prison on a fraud beef.)
So how can we move the needle with advertisers who want to do the right thing?
In the first quarter of 2013 we will have a number of high profile advertising opportunities that feature prized advertising opportunities for sponsors. I’m thinking of the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Grammys, just to name three. There are more.
None of these shows exactly have a problem selling spots. So why should the NFL or the movie or music industry groups permit advertisers on their air who also sell ads on pirate sites that steal the very content that makes the shows possible?
And even if the first round of discussions is not a take it or leave it proposition, sponsors on these shows should definitely have a teachable moment. A sit down with the players and artists whose livelihoods are affected by bad choices of these companies would be entirely appropriate.
It’s About Who Shows Up
These TV ads are sold by sales teams at the networks who buy the rights. That’s done with a contract. Part of that contract should require at least a meeting with the advertising sales team and advertisers at which these issues are discussed. The networks are just as much victims of piracy as the artists are, so this should be an easy ask. Standards and practices should include no advertising on pirate sites.
The point is that you can’t trust ad networks to take care of the problem. They try to get us to “follow the money” through a labyrinth of ad exchanges, real time barter trading desks, cascades, waterfalls, and all the other obfuscation techniques that have resulted in the highly lucrative unholy alliance.
I don’t need to follow the money. I can take a screenshot–I see a Fortune 100 brand advertising on a Most Wanted List pirate. I followed the money–it comes out of the brand’s bank account and goes into the pirates bank account. How that happens–not my issue. Leave that to the guys with the badges.
And it shouldn’t stop with the award shows. It should work its way through every aspect of our business.
This is an idea that’s well worth trying.
Chris Kornelis is on to something.