Online Piracy and the March of Technology
Owners of small paysites are particularly vulnerable to the negative consequences of these changes, as they typically do not have a robust IT department, qualified legal counsel or other expert support to rely upon for guidance.
One area where these deficiencies can be felt most sharply is in coping with piracy — the illegal, unauthorized usage, copying or distribution of copyrighted materials, including photos, videos, music, text and all other media.
I believe there will never be a single foolproof copy-protection solution that will be accepted by consumers — a case in point being many members' overwhelming disdain for DRM-protected paysite content. As such, operators struggling to combat the unauthorized use of their intellectual property need to embrace a comprehensive plan that includes not only the means of preventing piracy in the first place, but of mitigating and minimizing the financial losses that result when it inevitably occurs.
Preventing piracy based on purely technical means can be a challenging process, as the aforementioned DRM debacle illustrates. While I personally like the idea of DRM and have had no difficulties viewing encrypted files, I can understand members' reluctance to patronize sites that limit the use of the content they feel they have purchased. Indeed, the chargebacks that could arise from member dissatisfaction over DRM usability issues alone could be more problematic for some operators than is the theft of their content.
This leads us into examining the types of piracy that operators may face: For example, members could be re-posting content on niche bulletin boards or other user communities or allowing other users access to the files via peer-to-peer networks. Another type of loss is caused by other website owners stealing your content to post on their own website or thieves ripping your video content for street-level VCD and DVD distribution. Other times, you may be the victim of an organized criminal enterprise illegally pushing your wares across the globe.
Regardless of how your content is stolen or where it ends up, it's important to understand a fundamental difference of opinion over ownership that you may have with your customers. Despite any realities of your licensing agreement and its limitations on the user's rights to your intellectual property, it's the customer's feeling that he or she is entitled to unfettered use of the content that he or she purchases from you.
It's these emotions that can sometimes be turned to your advantage in preventing some forms of piracy. For example, paysites with active, engaging user communities can often leverage their members' loyalty by offering incentives to those that report unauthorized content postings. Fans of a certain niche may feel as if they have a relationship with a certain model or website, and so might feel obligated to report seeing the exclusive content that "belongs" to them being handed out for free by someone else. Encouraging such reports by offering membership extensions or other perks may do wonders.
Beyond the cases of piracy such reports will help you combat and the potential sales you may recover as a result, "report content theft" programs will also let members know that they're being watched — and this in itself will deter some users from stealing.
Another emotion you can play to is laziness: A website owner seeking to boost his own offerings by pilfering content from other websites may not wish to bother cropping your watermark from your photos or covering it over on your videos — he's much more likely to move on to easier pickings instead.
As for one purely technical approach to combating unauthorized content usage, be sure to use hot-linking protection, such as that provided by basic.htaccess files on *nix-based web servers — this will at least keep you from paying the bandwidth costs of serving up the content that is being stolen from you.
Whatever steps you take to prevent piracy, however, you will not be able to stop it all. The key then is to deal with the consequences — and just as fighting the initial theft of your content is part of the plan, so should mitigation be.
For example, on the subject of watermarking: All of your photo and video content should have your website's URL clearly displayed on it. Taking the process a step further, many media formats such as JPEG and WMV have metadata attachments that allow users to embed copyright and other textual information within the file. This step may prevent some cases of piracy, but just as importantly, it will build your brand and drive traffic to your site from pre-qualified users seeking more of the same, and will help you to prove ownership of any files in dispute.
Some operators feel that traffic gained from these watermarks may make any potential loss to file sharers that might have otherwise joined inconsequential.
Beyond preventing and mitigating losses, minimizing the financial impact of piracy — or better yet, tipping it in your favor — is another area of combating content theft that is worthy of your attention and the province of qualified legal counsel.
This approach requires the pursuit of copyright violators and recovery of damages when possible through legal channels, and is made much more profitable when your copyrights have been registered prior to the infringing action.
For some operators, the adoption of litigation as a business model has turned piracy from a business- killing problem into a cash cow of enormous proportions. It's also an excellent example of how the technology of consumer media sharing is fueling new business models — especially when you consider that some of those engaging in this pursuit may have seeded materials into venues where theft was not only possible, but likely — and then easily tracked and documented them.
Regardless of the impact that piracy and other unauthorized uses of content have on your business, operations of all sizes can take steps to prevent, mitigate, minimize and even profit handsomely from the theft of their wares. The key is to flexibly embrace technology and consumer emotion to leverage your efforts.