COVID-19 Online Piracy Surge: How to Protect Your Indie Film

Streaming and download piracy website traffic has dramatically surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to London-based piracy analysts Muso, analyzing the last 7 days of March 2020 compared to the last 7 days of February, visits to streaming and download piracy websites rose by 41.4% in the United States, 42.5% in the United Kingdom, 66% in Italy, 50.4% in Spain, and 35.5% in Germany.

Viewers stuck at home may feel like they’re winning, or that they’re only sticking it to corporate America by stealing content, but small and independent creators, who rely on Video-on-Demand (VOD) sales to make back production costs, are the biggest losers.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is one way to combat online piracy, but the Act is toothless for anyone without a copyright department — which includes every single independent producer. CopyrightSlap.com was designed by an independent filmmaker to be the copyright department for all small production houses, even one-person ones. It is a resource that was designed to be affordable and manageable for the smallest of content creators, and not just for the big creators with millions of dollars in backing.

What is a copyright infringement?

An infringement is when a copyrighted work is posted, released, or used outside of the designated means that the copyright holder permits or that is defined by Fair Use. Examples of infringements include but are definitely not limited to: illegal movie streaming sites posting ripped films online, a brand using a photographer’s photo in an ad campaign without permission and without paying the photographer, posting a PDF of a book on a website without the permission of the publisher or the author, and someone posting and giving away a copyrighted song for free on their website. 

Who is affected by online piracy?

Everyone related to a piece of content’s creation is affected by piracy — The publisher or producer who releases the content had to pay for the creation of that work, while the sale of the content is what helps pay back the costs of production as well as, hopefully, creates income to make creating another piece of content worthwhile. In the Independent Film world, VOD (Video on Demand) and non-theatrical releases are where producers aim to gain back the costs of their film.

When their film is pirated, the chance of their making back losses or making any future projects is greatly hindered. Even something as simple as Amazon Prime free videos, the producer makes fractions of a penny per minute their film is watched, but that can add up to help pay back costs. In the TV and film industry, directors, actors, and many members of a project make their money from residuals, dues owed to them from earnings from sales of a film — but with piracy, each and every member due residuals loses out on those earnings.

Book publishers are less likely to pay writers to write new books if publishing books become cost-prohibitive because instead of book sales the books are passed around for free online in their digital format. The same goes for musicians and producers who create songs and albums.

Just because something is digital does not mean that the creator did not spend a lot to make that creation happen — photographers’ camera, lenses, lights, computers, software, and other costs add up, and they recoup those costs, and make a living, by selling or licensing their pictures for advertisements or general sale. When their works are taken without permission or payment, their livelihood is taken away.

No one thinks it is right to go into a brick-and-mortar store and take a Blu-ray or book or photograph off a shelf or wall and walk out without paying for it; digitally, there is an odd double perspective where it is not viewed the same when it is exactly the same.

No, there are no reproduction costs, but there are still all the creation costs that go into making that product, and oftentimes, for a lot of creators, there are no hard copy products being sold, only the digital ones. Piracy hurts the big-budget world, but more directly it destroys the independent film, literary, music, and creative world entirely. You may think that your one act of watching or downloading won’t hurt, but everyone else thinking the same add up to a whole lot of destruction.

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How do you counter online piracy and what is the DMCA?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a U.S. law enacted in 1998 in an effort to combat piracy while also protecting freedom of speech. The pitfall of the DMCA is that in order to “protect” free speech, it notes that any content put online is considered not to be copyright infringement unless the copyright holder, or representative thereof, directly informs the site or the individual who posted the content that the content is indeed copyrighted.

After being informed, the site has “a reasonable amount of time” (deemed 48-72 hours, by de facto enforcement by the courts) to remove the content before it is considered to be an illegal act. What this means is that a content creator needs to find every occurrence of infringement on the Internet and then find the site’s contact information, or Web Host/ISP’s contact information, and send a very specifically formatted letter (as defined by the DMCA) to that contact, before it will ever be considered needed to be taken down.

Once received, if the content is not removed, then the content creator can use the Violation Notice sent, and a screenshot of the piracy, as a basis for legal action. The issue is, attorneys cost money and there is an endless number of sites pirating content, so for the standard copyright holder taking legal action would be a Sisyphean act, costing them endless time and money, only to run up against pirates that hide behind fake email addresses and false contact information. A lot has changed in the computer and Internet world in the last 20+ years since the DMCA was enacted.

Do Violation Notices work?

Many piracy websites don’t care what they pirate. The annoyance of dealing with a copyright holder, and possibly that copyright holder contacting their ISP/Web Host is enough motivation for the site operator to take down infringing URLs when served a DMCA Violation Notice. That said, like whack-a-mole, a piracy website taking something down does not ensure that they won’t put it up again under a different link in the future. Some websites are hosted by servers outside of the United States, and even though the DMCA is a U.S. copyright law other countries should respect it by international agreements.

However, not all countries are respectful, and certain countries either ignore the law, make it extremely difficult to comply (must have 2 witnesses sign a document, have it notarized, and a court order … per website link), or the country has such backward free speech laws that they deem copyright infringement, not something that should be respected. So the real answer is that if you can send out a continuous stream, a large number of infringements can be addressed, but not all, via a simple DMCA Violation Notice.

The less piracy there is online, the more traffic will head to legitimate sales/profit-generating sites, thus helping creators and those who make residuals off the content’s profits. If you buy a beer for $6, paying $4.99 for a film (or watching it for free on Amazon Prime) should not be the hardest decision to make.

What does CopyrightSlap.com do differently?

One thing that sets CopyrightSlap.com apart from other companies is that one of its founders is an independent film producer and the company was created with a singular goal of making it easier for low-budget productions to protect their works online. CopyrightSlap offers unlimited DMCA Violation Notice submissions and makes a submission as simple as copying and pasting a URL. In addition, CopyrightSlap provides a daily list of possible infringements that our system finds for active projects.

How does CopyrightSlap do that? Through a connected series of automation working hand-in-hand with proprietary AI learning. Most companies that assist content creators in sending DMCA Violation Notices charge $200 per URL and on top of all that makes the content creator fill out 10x more each takedown, they wish to send — while CopyrightSlap charges $20 for 30 days of unlimited takedowns.

In addition, because CopyrightSlap cares more about stopping online piracy than fleecing content creators, CopyrightSlap has begun a relationship with Homeland Security Investigations’ National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center. CopyrightSlap’s AI identifies sites that are used solely for online piracy, based on anonymous user-generated responses within its system, and then sends those blacklisted sites to the NIPRCC so that they can go after not just an individual URL, but an entire domain. When piracy sites can be taken down in entirety, the battle against online piracy can have an impact. 

The Hidden Cost of Piracy, to the User

Online piracy not only hurts the content creator and everyone who worked on a project, but it also has many hidden negative effects on the user as well. Why do online piracy sites exist? Sites exist to make a profit. So, how do these piracy sites make money? One way they make money is that they host ads on their sites — the more traffic they receive, the more money they make.

HOWEVER, that is one minor way they make money; the other ways are much more nefarious. Some sites open secondary windows in the background, to specific websites that they also host, automate browsing, and then automate the user’s computer clicking specific ads on that site — the more clicks, the more money they make. How do they do this?

They infiltrate your browser using cookies or other online items that are not regulated by users unaware that they need pop-up blockers or privacy settings turned high enough to prevent unknown access. Another way sites profit is by selling access to users’ computers. You know all those times you hear about how hackers use large numbers of “zombie” computers to carry out hacking attacks?

A lot of those computers come from users who go to piracy sites and have Trojan viruses downloaded to their computer without their knowledge. Nothing happens until that Trojan virus is activated and then your computer becomes part of a hacker’s army, or, you know, any downloaded bank statements can be reviewed, or personal emails with passwords or account numbers, or anything else that is on a user’s computer. In recent years, bitcoin miner Trojans have been installed on user’s computers and then hackers use those computers’ CPU power to mine bitcoin for them, without a person knowing.

So online piracy is much more dangerous, and hurtful than many realize, and oftentimes the amount of money saved is so minimal compared to what a user spends money on that deciding not to buy that additional 2-liter of soda or fries would easily offset the cost and respect the creators whose work they are clearly enjoying.

Online Piracy Surges During Global Quarantines

During the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, online piracy has skyrocketed across North America and Europe. According to London-based piracy analysts Muso, analyzing the last 7 days of March 2020 compared to the last 7 days of February, visits to streaming and download piracy websites rose by 41.4% in the United States, 42.5% in the United Kingdom, 66% in Italy, 50.4% in Spain, and 35.5% in Germany.

The rise in traffic to these illegal sites corresponds roughly with country stay-at-home orders in Germany, March 22; the U.K., March 23; 3/4ths of the U.S. by March 31; Spain, March 14; and Italy, February 22. Italy and Spain both are known for having higher traffic to piracy sites, in general, and were among the first countries to issue stay-at-home orders.

Interestingly, visits to TV piracy sites were much higher than visits to film piracy sites, the study showed. Muso noted in its report that it clocked 601.3 million visits to TV piracy sites during the 7-day time period studied, compared to 137.4 million visits to film piracy sites — though paradoxically, TV piracy rose only 8.7%, while film piracy rose 41.4% over the studied period.

Just to put these numbers in perspective, if a user would normally pay $1 U.S. to watch a film (which would be a steal in and of itself), over a 4-week period, the film industry loses just over half a billion dollars … each month … just on feature films … in the United States alone.


Written by: Evan Bass Zeisel, CEO Copyright Slap:
Evan Bass Zeisel, a graduate of Columbia University, is a filmmaker, writer, entrepreneur, and the CEO of Copyright Slap LLC. Evan has produced numerous independent films during the last decade — from the multi-award-winning short film How You Are to Me to the feature thriller The Eve. He has also produced many original web series, including Buddy CoPs, The SIT Network, and Zombie Survival Training with William Stradler.
With the release of his first feature on Video-On-Demand (VOD), Evan became aware of how damaging and costly illegal streaming and online piracy are for independent filmmakers. After spending hours manually submitting DMCA Violation Notices, he reached out to a college friend, Lee Kowitz (CTO of Copyright Slap LLC), to pitch the idea of a company that would help independent content creators fight online piracy without breaking the bank. Together, they imagined a digital armada pairing AI-learning with individualized attention to help content creators battle online piracy, and CopyrightSlap was born.

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