Posted on 2016/10/28 by

“This Web Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”: On Web Sheriff and Anti-Piracy as a Business Force

I can still remember the pang of disappointment that accompanied the email. GirlAttorneys – or, in the du jour stylization of the time, GIRLATTORNEYS – a music blog that I had run with a couple of friends for close to a year, had been permanently shutdown by Blogger for one too many DMCA takedown notices. This was around the tail end of (what I have seen music forum obsessives recall anecdotally as) the “golden age” of music blogging, a post-Napster period that saw a perhaps unprecedented sharing of obscure and out of print music via the proliferation of blogspot domains – such as Experimental, Etc., Mutant Sounds, and Ghost-Capital – and the relative ease of use of digital file storage “cyberlocker” services like Megaupload, RapidShare, and MediaFire.

I had written some longform pieces for the site, but, by and large, we acted as other lower-level music blogs did at the time, posting links to recently-leaked and older favourite albums hosted on MediaFire. The DMCA takedowns that were our undoing came in quick succession in May 2010 for The New Pornographers’ Together and LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, both hotly anticipated albums for that quarter in the independent music community, and that I had instantly posted in hopes of luring traffic to the site, and, hopefully, to my other turgid musings on 80s R.E.M.

The entity that served the notices to Blogger and took us down was the aptly named Web Sheriff, a still-functioning private content-policing service headed by longtime intellectual property lawyer John Giacobbi. Web Sheriff specializes in a “unique and successful combination of anti-piracy services, viral marketing and mass traffic re-direction [that] has been proven to dramatically increase sales and drive on-line traffic to official sites and promotions in huge numbers” (“Services”), and, in the years following my specific takedown, increasingly became known for its gentler approach to enforcement[1], aiming to differentiate between various forms of piracy – “ardent fans who can’t wait for an official release; techno-geeks who are out to show they can beat the system; and hard-core music pirates” (Lewis) – and treat them accordingly. Although, I should note, nothing about GirlAttorneys’ takedown felt indicative of a “fan-friendly approach” (Bruno), instead falling more in line with a certain sentiment expressed on the company’s “About Us” page in a (laughably simplistic?) metaphor: “this [garden analogy] is a very accurate analogy and many are the times when we’ve been called in and asked to help transform a ‘netscape’ from weeds to roses … and just as this is possible with real gardens, so too is it possible on the internet” (“About Us”).

Web Sheriff's signature letterhead. https://torrentfreak.com/images/web-sheriff-mistake.jpg

Web Sheriff’s signature letterhead.
https://torrentfreak.com/images/web-sheriff-mistake.jpg

The somewhat protracted point that I am leading to here is that there is a business of/to anti-piracy, and it is one that frequently isn’t acknowledged in our popular folk conceptualizations of piracy’s political economy. As Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas argue, in their article, “The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars,” this is largely a result of the narratives around piracy that we receive – and, at this point, inherit – from industry/trade group anti-piracy rhetoric. As Lobato and Thomas state, “[a] key strategy of content industry groups during their long war on piracy has been to associate copyright infringement with lost revenue for artists, producers, and media businesses” (606), which leads to, in turn, an understanding founded on “the model of a zero-sum economic redistribution between two camps—producers and pirates—with the latter cannibalizing the revenues of the former” (606).

As a now humorous example of this rhetoric at play, consider the Software Publishers Association’s 1992 anti-software-piracy video “Don’t Copy That Floppy.” In the video, MC d/p (short for Disc Protector), a “rapping, human version of DRM” (Crezo), interrupts two children in the process of copying a floppy disc game, and proceeds to lecture them on the computer programming industry’s viability and copyright law before throwing over “to some of the team” – a game designer, programming director, and senior programmer – who further explain the benefits of legally purchasing software while also giving a human face to those whose livelihood is harmed even “if [you] make a copy of this science program just to use at home” (“Don’t Copy That Floppy” 6:17-20). Although this example is dated at this point, it is worth reflecting on how this simplistic formulation still operates in contemporary contexts in ways that prove to be deeply unconstructive when attempting to grasp the intricacies of modern piracy economics.

Adrian Johns, in “Piracy As a Business Force,” urges us to see a through-line between the founding pirate radio broadcasters of 1960s Britain and modern-day bit-torrent piracy. In doing so, Johns proposes a different genealogy, as he says, “[t]he appropriate inspirations become not Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, but Friedrich Hayek and – especially – Ronald Coase and their assaults on public media” (46). According to Johns’ research, “[Oliver] Smedley’s cohort saw in [pirate radio] the possibility for a thoroughgoing challenge to an entire political and economic system. Their Project Atlanta would begin by undermining information monopolies. Piracy for them was to be first a business force, then a cultural force, and finally a political force” (58). For the pirate broadcasters that Johns studied, then, we can say that piracy had a tremendous generative potential, as he demonstrates through careful examination of Institute of Economic Affairs tracts. Citing the examples of Allen Lane and John Bloom, the IEA tracts convey that, within this libertarian ideological framework, supposed “piratic” activity was conceived of as essentially unwanted innovation that challenges established monopoly interests.

Interestingly, what Lobato and Thomas explore in their work is the generative potential of anti-piracy as a business force:

a generative logic is at work in contemporary IP economies: piracy produces new anti-piracy enterprise, which in turn produces new informal workarounds for pirates, which generate new anti-circumvention responses, and so on. The pattern here is not leakage but dispersal, with commercial opportunities created in both the legal and extralegal spheres, leading to the consolidation of diverse and rapidly expanding lines of business around IP enforcement, policing, research, and technological prevention. (Lobato and Thomas 607 emphasis added)

As a result of this generative logic, in the contemporary digital context, perhaps we could say that MC Disc Protector has been able to incorporate and diversify, graduating from the spatial confines of a 1992 classroom desktop to the anarchic world of the web. Lobato and Thomas go on to examine what they term the “Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries” (610) – technological prevention, revenue capture, knowledge generation, and policing and enforcement – with the caveat that each industry sector may do work that is used by or that informs another. Each sector sees the problem of piracy differently, may offer different services/products to different markets, and have a different strategic aim. Web Sheriff figures in their typology – falling under the sectors of knowledge generation and policing and enforcement – because, as of 2012, the company was involved in P2P traffic measurement and in generating takedown notices.

Lobado and Thomas' "Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries 1995–2010" table from "The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars," p. 610.

Lobato and Thomas’ “Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries 1995–2010” table from “The Business of Anti-Piracy:
New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars,” p. 610.

They then map a “formal/informal” economic differentiation onto the four sectors of industry, where the creative content industries are a level of largely formal production and distribution, the piratic industries are a level above and are informal, and the anti-piratic enterprises are, again, a level above and are largely formal (616). Intuitively, the (informal) piratic industries are entirely dependent on the formal creative content industries, and, analogously, the (formal) anti-piratic enterprises are entirely dependent on those (informal) piratic industries. Each anti-piratic industry sector has a different “rationale/formalizing strategy” for formalizing these informal piratic activities. For example, the revenue capture sector aims “[t]o create advertising markets from infringing traffic,” while the policing and enforcement sector instead has the objective of “creat[ing] law-abiding citizen-consumers to sustain returns on investment for content producers” (617). Lobato and Thomas’ model, therefore, more accurately reflects the complicated flows of capital in the digital economy in a way that helps us move away from overly reductive models predicated on the “zero-sum economic redistribution between two camps [producers and pirates]” (606). They summarize their approach by emphasizing its primary focus on the form of content/commodity as a basic unit of investigation: “We propose that another way of thinking about the economics of piracy is to begin with certain media products and practices and then track all the different kinds of income-generating activities that open up around them, as they cross back and forth between the formal and informal zones” (617).

What do we take from all of this? Piracy, itself, can be conceived of as a business force, in both the historical sense offered by Johns’ linking it to the IEA, and in terms of its contemporary economics, such as those treated in the Social Science Research Council’s influential Media Piracy in Emerging Economies. In addition, though, as Lobato and Thomas document, anti-piracy has also become a significant economic force with its own disparate sectors and strategic aims, often ones that may diverge from traditional litigation practices into grey areas where “[a]nti-piracy litigation is … not completely congruent with anti-piracy deterrence” (620), such as in their example of the practice of en masse speculative invoicing of “infringement” (618-20). What does this entail for us if we choose to study piracy? How might it influence or complicate research methodologies in ways that cause us to scrutinize information more closely? For example, now that we know that, in addition to industry groups like the Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording Industry Association of America, there may be other private corporate players who have a profit-motive interest in “knowledge generation” as it relates to public discourse around piracy, how do we remain vigilant in our scholarship regarding the information that we gather and use?

As Lobato and Thomas assert in their concluding section, “[r]ather than seeing the piracy wars as a David and Goliath battle between consumers and corporations, as per the liberal copyright reform script, or as the final crisis of informational capitalism, we also need to see them as driven by ad hoc commercial practice” (621). In following Lobato and Thomas I feel that any responsible scholarship on contemporary piracy should take into account this practice and its effects, and I think that, in doing so, we can continue to raise provocative questions about piratic activities and their regulation while remaining grounded in a clearer understanding of the political economy that underlies them.

[1] As a reflection of this approach, Helienne Lindvall makes mention in The Guardian of Web Sheriff opening a thread (that ran to 18 pages) on brainkiller.it, an unofficial fan forum for the electronic producer The Prodigy, back in 2009. Sadly, only a lone page of this thread remains cached on the Wayback Machine, but it still provides a fascinating glimpse of the “Sheriffian” ethos in action. The featured header image for this article is a screenshot of a Web Sheriff post from the thread.

Works Cited

Bruno, Anthony. “New Sheriff In Town: Anti-Piracy Company’s Shifting Tactics Reflect Market’s Pivot From Enforcement To Engagement.” Billboard, 9 July 2011: 8.

Crezo, Adrienne. “‘Don’t Copy That Floppy’: The Best Bad PSA Ever Is a Rap From ’92.” Mental Floss, 2 May 2014. http://mentalfloss.com/article/12561/dont-copy-floppy-best-bad-psa-ever-rap-92. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Johns, Adrian. “Piracy As A Business Force.” Culture Machine 10 (2009): 44-63.

Lewis, Randy. “Piracy watchdog’s mild bite: Web Sheriff prefers to persuade, not prosecute, music fans.” Los-Angeles Times, 9 June 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/09/entertainment/la-et-web-sheriff-20110609. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Lobato, Ramon and Julian Thomas. “The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars.” International Journal of Communication, 6 (2012): 606-25.

Software & Information Industry Association. “Don’t Copy That Floppy.” YouTube, uploaded by SIIA Anti-Piracy, 2 Apr. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkdzy9bWW3E. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Web Sheriff. “About Us.” Web Sheriff: Creative Protection, 2016. http://www.websheriff.com/about-us/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

—. “Services.” Web Sheriff: Creative Protection, 2016. http://www.websheriff.com/services/. Accessed 25 October 2016.

 

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