As more content owners begin to employ means such as trade group membership and lawsuits, as well as watermarking and other technologies in order to prevent their valuable assets from straying, some remain convinced a certain amount of "free-range" content can be beneficial to the bottom line. Others rely on the maxim, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em — but do it intelligently."
The Internet has done one thing remarkably well: It has made vast amounts of copyrighted material readily available to anyone with a web connection. Early in the game, the idea that "content wants to be free" was bandied about — although undoubtedly users' desires had more to do with that than did the desires of the content makers themselves.
Although "fair use," plagiarism and out-and-out theft of artistic material has been around since the inception of creative endeavor, wholesale infringement seems only to have gotten worse as Web 2.0 and user-generated and -manipulated milieus have descended upon the Internet landscape. The web's not exactly the Wild Wild West anymore, but rustlers seem to be multiplying at a rate that would alarm Chinchilla ranchers. What's a content creator to do?
According to Falcon Foto Chief Executive Officer Gail Harris, there may not be much artists can do. "Content is going to get away," she said in a tone that only hinted at the bulldog-tough spirit behind her cheerful British exterior. "If you want your content to be secure, go to the bank, rent a safety deposit box and lock it up. But that actually does you no good."
Harris would know. As the founder of one of the adult industry's iconic erotic photography libraries, content theft is an ongoing nightmare for her. Falcon has battled copyright infringement for most of its 20 years, recently becoming as notable for filing lawsuits against other adult-industry players as for the mountains of content in its vaults. With the lawsuits, she said her company is sending a message to commercial endeavors that cross the line: "You have to pay to profit."
She doesn't feel quite the same way about end-users, though. In Harris' view, if content is going to escape anyway, why not plan for the inevitable and put it to good use in your marketing plan?
"We try to mark our material — both images and video — in creative ways so that when people find it loose online, it leads them back to us," she said. "Think of it as an electronic lasso."
Exactly how one should mark their content so it's easily traced to its source isn't as clear-cut as the advice to mark it, however. Harris said her company uses a variety of means, including watermarks and pre- and post-roll mini-commercials. She also said she's seen some very enticing scenes in which, at the moment of climax, one of the performers will say the name of a website while facing the camera with a come-hither look in her eyes.
Other companies have abandoned their previous membership-site-based business models to use their original content in other ways, often as marketing components in collaborative third-party arrangements that make money for both partners. As Harris put it, "If [piracy] is killing your business, find something else to sell."
The bottom line: "There's nothing wrong with sharing content, as long as it's done with permission," Harris said. "But producers absolutely must be creative with their efforts, or they can resign themselves to going out of business. Anything that goes out needs to be branded somehow. Some companies, like Bang Bros., actually are now making clips [with the expectation they will] show up in places like tube sites."
Ah, yes: tube sites, alternately condemned as demonic and praised as the modern-day reincarnation of highly profitable thumbnail gallery posts and movie gallery posts. Harris admitted the tubes have been problematic for adult — even more so than the previous generation of hobgoblins, the peer-to-peer networks — because tubes represent a temptation content thieves simply can't resist: Membership is free, they're easy to use, and posts often bring a certain amount of notoriety. Hardly any adult company has missed the overwhelming joy of finding bits and pieces of its proprietary content among the seemingly endless array of user-submitted materials on one tube or another.
But according to Harris, the tubes are about to undergo a monumental transition similar to what happened to TGPs and MGPs earlier this decade, and they're about to discover that the adult industry takes a very dim view of their alleged protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
"The industry as a whole needs to make a decision similar to the one it made about TGPs and MGPs," she said. "In other words, 'these are the things that are OK for you to do, and if you don't adhere to these guidelines, you can't play.' The industry has demonstrated it can police itself when it needs to and if it sees a real benefit." After all, she added, the TGPs and MGPs weren't protected by the DMCA, even though they operated in a very similar fashion.
Mark, the owner of Gallery Traffic Service, echoed Harris' sentiment.
Mark fits firmly into the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em category. Instead of railing against copyright infringers, he suggests content owners find ways to embrace a new distribution model and make it work for them.
"It's evident that surfers have embraced this new way to watch porn, and they want this," he said. "These sites have come from nothing, and they are now some of the largest sites in the world. The traffic is simply staggering. We can complain about these sites — a lot of webmasters would say, 'They got this big because they stole this content from webmasters,' and, 'They got this big because they gave away so much content that of course surfers are going to go there over my site,' but the fact is, it really doesn't matter why they are this big.
"What matters now is what we want to do about it. Should these sites continue on their current ways of copyright infringement, or should we try and work with these massive traffic players and set up content deals so we can legitimize these traffic sources?
"Don't get me wrong," he hastened to add. "I don't support stealing at all. I want these tube sites to clean up their act and become legit traffic sources, just like how TGPs went from being hated to being revered by webmasters for giving away content."
In fact, he's come up with a plan to help. Bouncing around among the conversations at The Phoenix Forum in March was a discussion about LegalTubeContent.com, a site that will provide authorized promotional clips from sponsors and content companies to the operators of tubes and other free sites. All content will bear embedded links to its owner, and no one will be allowed access to the system unless he or she has registered and provided personally identifiable details. The content is tracked from start to finish throughout its useful life. The site was launched in mid-April.
"We went down this same road eight years ago with TGPs," Mark said. "Content theft back then was rampant. What happened? The sponsors and the TGPs started working together, and guess what? TGPs are now a very good and reliable source of traffic. It's no different now — just the next evolution. We don't have to reinvent the wheel."
For their part, content owners are all about not reinventing the wheel. However, there are certain points on which they stand firm — unauthorized content use is one of them. For people like PR Don, the core issue is less about revising business models and ways of interacting with consumers than about basic human decency.
As the marketing director for PimpRoll, Adult Elite and Porn.com, part of his job is using original content to whet surfers' appetites in any ways that prove effective.
He has no qualms about giving end-users content for free — in fact, he supports that effort wholeheartedly, likening the methodology to product sampling in a grocery store or suburban mall. He calls the method "tryvertising."
"We want to be the ones to decide who uses our content where. [Content theft is] like shoplifting."
It's not only illegal, it's just plain rude.
PR Don said he thinks that providing an abundance of free content may be what keeps his company's pay content out of the hands of those who haven't paid. "We provide so much free stuff and we provide free hosting … maybe we haven't seen so much [piracy] because we provide so much," he said. Even Porn.com hasn't determined the ratio of free-to-pay content that defines critical mass, though. "How much is too much? Nobody knows," PR Don said.
Possibly because Porn.com hasn't been victimized too greatly, PR Don believes that in the long run, the piracy problem will amount to little more than a temporary headache.
"Industries have a way of governing themselves," he said. "It will work its way out."