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Piracy Battlefront: Content Protection Watchdogs on Evolving Threats, Solutions

Piracy Battlefront: Content Protection Watchdogs on Evolving Threats, Solutions

Thanks to the creator economy, the rise of indie paysites and a cross-pollinating ecosystem of affiliates, studios and multibrand behemoths flooding the internet with billions of photos, videos and text messages, there has never been such a treasure trove of adult content online. But where there is treasure, there are pirates.

Even as the industry has evolved to meet the seemingly endless demand for eroticism, parasocial intimacy and hardcore fare, today’s digital thieves have likewise grown more sophisticated, savvy and insidious in their pilfering, dissemination and profiteering of other people’s creative work. When pirates are not scouring or scraping megasites with automated tech, they are attacking a brand-new breed of seemingly easy targets: independent creators.

With so many channels and avenues to distribute their work, it is nearly impossible for the average creator to not only track piracy but also issue Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices.

Meanwhile, talent are frequently already overloaded, serving not only as performers and creators but also as their own accountants, marketers, project managers, directors and a litany of other roles. On top of releasing content on multiple sites while livestreaming — and perhaps occasionally attending to things like family or trying to have a life outside of work — they must now also keep a sharp eye out for pirates on the horizon.

With so many channels and avenues to distribute their work, it is nearly impossible for the average creator to not only track piracy but also issue Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices. Fortunately, a vanguard of attorneys and content protection providers, buoyed by just as much AI as their pirate counterparts, stand poised to defend against and thwart piracy on their behalf.

Sharing their insights on the latest marketplace issues and trends, in this special report, are Jessica Hookimaw of BranditScan, Dan Purcell of Ceartas DMCA, Mark Bauman of DMCAForce, Reba Rocket of Takedown Piracy and Jason Tucker of Battleship Stance, as well as Lawrence Walters of Walters Law Group and Corey Silverstein of Silverstein Legal.

The Front Lines of Digital Modern Warfare

In the digital battle against pirates, there are a multitude of factors arrayed against adult content creators, most notably stigma.

“One truly detrimental factor for creators is not directly related to piracy,” Jessica Hookimaw of BranditScan explains. “I’m referring to discrimination against sex workers on social media platforms. Adult content creators rely on social media to funnel traffic to their official content platforms, and without these channels, piracy thrives.”

She points out that when platforms suddenly delete creators’ social media profiles and the creators lose contact with their fan base, those fans are then left to their own devices to find content, most of the time leading them to underground piracy.

“It massively impacts a creator’s earnings, their brand’s growth and their ability to have the stability that most SFW influencers enjoy,” Hookimaw says. “Discrimination against sex workers is a systemic issue, and social media discrimination is the tip of the iceberg.”

Reba Rocket of Takedown Piracy has additionally noted another pitfall of social media: platforms’ seeming indifference to the copyrights of adult content creators, as evidenced by the sheer volume of DMCA takedown notices the company sees daily.

Dan Purcell of Ceartas DMCA underlines that the world of content piracy moves fast, especially in the adult industry.

“Just when you think you’ve got a grip on it, pirates come up with newer methods, hiding behind anonymous profiles and using VPNs,” he explains. “Plus, content meant for one region pops up in another, making geo-locking a real headache. And to top it off, each country has its own set of rules about adult content. Navigating this maze can be so tricky!”

Mark Bauman of DMCAForce believes the need to adopt available AI-driven brand protection technologies, which can catalog and regulate content with high efficiency and accuracy, is the most pressing issue facing copyright protection services, though private content being shared via messenger service Telegram remains hard to keep tabs on even with such advantages.

“For the most part, online sites and systems that are easily indexable, by our systems and others or by manual search, are easy to detect and hammer with DMCAs,” he shares. “Those that are using either Telegram or private groups, since Telegram is rife with piracy and CSAM content, makes it more difficult to enforce when the platform itself is not willing to enforce their own rules.”

DMCAForce blocks copyrighted content at the upload level, Bauman explains, adding that widespread adoption of the company’s APIs “could easily eliminate piracy in a cheap programmatic way.”

Bauman says DMCAForce has direct API access to some of the largest video-sharing platforms, and lists OnlyFans, Adult Time, Fansly, ManyVids and Porndoe among the brands that utilize his service. He notes that DMCAForce uses a proprietary digital fingerprinting solution, DigiRegs, along with its search engine AI tool, BrandWarden, a metadata crawling system and a 24-hour support team to safeguard clients.

Every day, Rocket observes, pirates find more ways to capture, post and monetize content that does not belong to them.

“As technology improves for everyone, it improves for pirates too,” she says. Yet the problem as she sees it is more than technological.

“With the overt animosity toward the adult industry, finding allies to help enforce the laws that should protect everyone, including adult content producers, can prove challenging,” Rocket laments. “Even some within our own industry profit from pirated content through advertising, and often seem indifferent when asked to stop.”

Rocket also believes it is vital to make sure anyone protecting content using the DMCA knows and understands the law, given the nuances that can trip up less experienced, less savvy or indifferent services. Not understanding how to employ the DMCA can get content producers into fairly serious consequences, she cautions.

Jason Tucker of Battleship Stance, an intellectual property management, anti-piracy and legal services company, assesses the industry’s foes this way: “Today, pirate operators are more sophisticated. The lack of verified identification, untraceable emails, prepaid cards, VPNs and the emergence of AI tools all add to the ease with which piracy can and does occur.”

Interestingly, Tucker has discerned a notable decrease in tube piracy compared with just a few years ago, while embedded content sites, Telegram, Discord and similar secondary channels have emerged as new battlegrounds.

“With AI tools, we are seeing an uptick in the speed at which content is placed online, and AI helps that content become more easily found,” he shares, echoing Rocket’s perspective as he adds, “Waiting for real governmental or global regulation is hope dope.”

Current laws on takedown notices, while supporting removal, have in his estimation become outdated due to lack of regulation or lack of funding for enforcement — especially given that certain hosting providers, content delivery networks, streaming services and social media platforms fully embrace pirates and effectively support their operations.

“They enable by taking the position that they are acting as ‘service providers’ and are therefore absolved from liability,” he says. “At present, many laws around the world support their capability. What does this mean? You need to take care of your most prized possession, your content. Piracy isn’t going to go away, but there are clear steps you can take to be in a position to address piracy when it occurs.”

Meanwhile, attorney Corey Silverstein of Silverstein Legal has been sounding the alarm about AI and its rapid advances.

“AI is here and if you aren’t paying attention, you will soon be playing a game of catch-up that you won’t be able to win,” he states. “Already, there are new platforms launching every day that promise to make AI content generation easier and faster. Content creators love the notion of having the ability to create mass content by simply using existing content.”

Lawrence Walters of Walters Law Group and FirstAmendment.com cites two overarching considerations when it comes to adult content piracy and protection.

“First, content will be stolen,” he says. “Creators cannot turn a blind eye to the problem merely because it is too large and difficult to prevent 100% of the time. Every creator, producer and publisher should be engaged on the issue and develop an anti-piracy strategy that suits their individual needs and resources. Second, there is no silver bullet that will stop piracy. Unauthorized copying of creative works has been happening since humans first learned to create.

“Digital publication of content has made piracy easier and more lucrative,” he continues. “Content thieves work hard to avoid being caught or punished and go to great lengths to position themselves as difficult targets. Recognizing these fundamental truths about piracy will allow copyright holders to take appropriate action while setting reasonable expectations.”

Just as pirates make themselves difficult targets, so too should content creators make their content less attractive for these thieves to steal, Walters advises. In his view, establishing a reputation for fighting back against piracy is essential.

“Avoid becoming a soft target who simply accepts piracy as a cost of doing business on the internet,” he urges. “Devoting some resources to anti-piracy efforts is the cost of doing business — not the piracy itself. By fighting back with tools such as fingerprinting, watermarking, trademarking, content recognition software, copyright registrations, DMCA notices and/or legal action, copyright holders can establish a reputation as a hard target that will cost the pirates time, effort and potentially money.”

The goal, he says, is to preserve the value of creator content by making it difficult to steal and forcing the pirates to think twice about targeting a particular creator’s content for infringement.

Such efforts can sometimes hit a snag or backfire, however. With content published on numerous different platforms for promotional purposes or pursuant to licensing arrangements, creators sometimes inadvertently end up authorizing takedown of content they themselves posted. Walters sees this as a particularly pressing concern.

“More and more frequently, we are seeing DMCA takedown service providers demanding removal of a creator’s own links,” he explains. “This can result from automated targeting of presumptively infringing links through bots or keywords, without sufficient vetting of the publisher’s rights to distribute the content.”

Sending defective takedown demands, Walters points out, can result in potential liability under the DMCA for both the service provider sending the notices and for the creator. To avoid this conundrum, he recommends that creators give DMCA takedown service providers a list of their links on all platforms for whitelisting, to avoid potential removal of content from authorized channels.

Fortifying Defenses and Outmaneuvering the Enemy

Rather than simply being reactive and deploying countermeasures only after thieves have already pillaged their creative works, creators and producers have options to make themselves unattractive targets and ward off such piracy in the first place.

“Fighting piracy begins way before you upload your first video,” Hookimaw says. “To be proactive, creators should consider setting up a landing page for their brand; Linktree and similar link-gathering platforms work great. This will keep all of your official platforms in one place and help your fans easily locate your content.”

She also recommends that creators watermark their content with their own domains. That way, even if the content does get reshared, fans will still be able to locate the creator’s website or links for years to come, to find platforms on which to purchase content.

“Creators should avoid joining just any and all websites,” she adds, warning against a scattershot approach. “Join platforms that allow for content to be locked behind individual post paywalls. This ensures pirates must work harder to reach every video versus having your entire library easily stolen for a small subscription fee.”

The most important precaution of all, she explains, is filing copyrights for content early on in a creator’s career, because while there are upfront costs to do so, owning the copyright to a content library can help with taking legal action against pirates.

“Without a copyright, claiming lost earnings for the stolen content can be difficult to prove,” she concludes.

Purcell notes that, while there is no magic bullet to prevent theft, there are smart moves to make. He concurs with Hookimaw about the value of watermarks.

“Embed unique watermarks on content; it’s like your content’s personal ID,” he says. “Use digital rights management (DRM) tools to put a lock on unauthorized sharing.”

Instead of playing whack-a-mole with pirated content, Purcell emphasizes proactive solutions, as well as making sure everyone with whom a creator works also understands the importance of content protection. Otherwise, collabs with other talent could make a video more vulnerable, given that such videos are often sold by multiple individuals, multiplying the chances of piracy.

To take maximum advantage of current and future detection and removal technologies, Rocket advises keeping copies of copyrighted content. She also urges written agreements for collaborative efforts to clarify who owns the content, who can post and monetize it, and where.

“Ask questions!” she emphasizes. “Any DMCA service should be able to show a creator the specific links they’ve submitted to any platform for removal. Learn to read the Google Transparency Report. Make sure you have a readily available human to speak with at your DMCA service. Someone should be able to reply to questions or pleas for assistance within hours.”

Tucker advises clients to set a specific goal in approaching piracy issues, since while they may want pirated content removed, they may also want to claim the traffic that pirated versions of their content have been attracting.

“Our specialty is finding and communicating with pirate operators and if needed, taking down or taking over their domains, regardless of where they exist or want to look like they are existing,” he explains. “We build and execute customized campaigns based on our client’s goals and objectives in this ever-changing landscape.

“You may want it all to end at certain locations and take over the domain,” Tucker says. “You may want to vertically integrate into a site with an affiliate channel displaying limited content, funnel content from a site or just have it all taken down.”

Fortunately, he notes, there are paths, companies and tools to support all of these goals without having to take time away from running a business.

“If you are a ‘do it yourself’ creator or small-to-midsize producer, you may want to deploy tactics that are not typically costly,” he continues. “If you just want content taken down, you can send takedown notices to pirates, providers and search engines, among others. We offer free templates on our education site, iphqs.com. If you are a larger-size producer, then litigation tactics should be part of your campaign strategy. Or you can pay one or more companies to do this for you.”

Tucker likewise recommends registering content with the U.S. Copyright Office — pointing out that this can cost less than $75 per work registered, and can be done by the creator or outsourced — as well as watermarking content for ease of identification and free advertising purposes. A floating watermark is best for security, he says.

Silverstein counsels, “If you are a creator, it is essential that you review model releases with a fine-tooth comb so that you fully understand the rights that you are giving to a producer. Newer model releases now include specific language that conveys certain rights relative to AI-generated content and the expanded use of a performer’s name and likeness.”

Silverstein similarly urges producers to recognize that content generation is entering a new era right before their very eyes. He says this makes it imperative that producers update their model releases, to make sure they can fully utilize content and to account for unanticipated scenarios resulting from quickly evolving technology.

“Many producers are already feeling the squeeze of having used outdated or ‘form’ model releases that severely limit their ability to fully monetize content,” he says.

What specific steps should any particular creator take? According to Walters, that largely depends on the creator’s budget and content — though at a minimum he thinks creators should be sending DMCA notices to publishers of any unauthorized content, or hire a DMCA takedown service to assist with that effort.

“Regular searches should be conducted to remain aware of new infringements and to follow up on outstanding takedowns,” he offers. “Copyright holders should consider registering their content, particularly any new content, with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication. This will protect the right to file administrative actions or lawsuits for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees.”

If platforms fail to honor takedown requests, Walters adds, creators can take legal action if their content is properly registered, as the U.S. Copyright Office now allows copyright holders to file “small claims” for copyright complaints seeking $30,000 or less in damages, without going to court. He suggests the Copyright Claims Board Handbook as a resource for creators to brush up.

“All content should contain a watermark identifying the copyright owner as the source of the content,” he says. “Creators can also consider registering their stage name as a trademark and labeling their content with that registered brand. Additional claims can be pursued against pirates if the copied content contains a registered trademark, or if a watermark is removed.”

Advanced Warfare of the Future

The modern digital battlefront is tricky and fast-paced enough as it is, but it also pays to try and anticipate where pirates may next marshal their resources and attempt a breach. Keeping tabs on emerging tech and novel techniques being deployed by crafty thieves can help creators and companies avoid being taken by surprise. Deepfakes and AI-generated content are just the latest disruptive trends to coalesce into a clear and present danger.

“In a world where digital content is constantly changing, the creator economy is moving far quicker than legislation and regulation can keep up with,” Hookimaw says. “One of the biggest battles we are beginning to experience is AI-generated content and where takedowns can be applied regarding this type of content. The difference between fair use and which party holds rights to AI content is not currently clear.”

Hookimaw says BranditScan is keenly watching to see what precedents will be set by AI content lawsuits, in order to better understand how current and future regulations may apply.

“While state and national legislation catches up, platforms and search engines can play an important role by providing improved reporting, processes and removal tools for deepfake AI-generated content,” she explains.

Purcell agrees that the road ahead is full of deepfakes and AI-generated content, which he says Ceartas is already detecting and removing.

“Pirates aren’t sitting still,” he emphasizes. “They’re looking into decentralized platforms and AI for their mischief. And while we’re talking about change, governments worldwide are paying more attention, meaning we might see some new rules and regulations coming our way.”

Bauman notes that DMCAForce has tested and adapted technology that can verify an exact match of content for single or multiple scenes.

“Not only do we already have in-depth detection on individual original content, but we are also building in AI modeling to offer that out as a service for not just protecting, but also licensing content,” he reveals.

Rocket says that since Takedown Piracy does not require the cooperation of tube sites to fingerprint their videos, the company has amassed a significant amount of data.

“We are nearing a half-billion digitally fingerprinted tube videos, which our system perpetually matches against our clients’ videos, deanonymizing the violations regardless of what metadata the pirates have used,” Rocket shares.

Since the company has been employing this method for almost a decade, it can uncover content uploaded over a decade ago, she notes, with the technology available to everyone from large clip stores to studios and individual content producers.

Tucker reflects, “For almost 20 years, I have been at the frontline of the industry’s relentless war against piracy. We have helped create and shape many of the systems in place today. With our clients, we have generated over a billion takedown notices and directed over a billion hits of traffic. Our unique position assists us in maintaining a honed perspective in this ever-evolving war against theft.

“The battle against content piracy and protection will continue to evolve as technologies advance and legislation attempts to adapt to the digital age,” he continues. “As content creators and rights holders, you need to be proactive in adopting advanced technologies and strategies to protect your intellectual property.”

The biggest takeaway, Tucker offers, is that creators and producers are not alone in this fight, as many companies are working on the shared goal of protecting content and directing traffic to legitimate subscription and ad-driven models.

Also reflecting on the past to map the future, Silverstein says, “History has continually demonstrated that as new technology comes to market and people responsibly utilize that new technology, there are just as many, if not more, people seeking to unlawfully exploit that technology for their own financial gain. Performers are especially vulnerable in the short term from individuals utilizing their name and likeness without the performers’ consent in order to create impermissible deepfakes and similar AI content.”

Performers are going to have to be extra vigilant, Silverstein points out. They will need to dedicate more time and financial resources to policing this new era of piracy. However, he urges performers and producers to conduct due diligence when hiring any type of anti-piracy service, as some are reputable but others operate more as cash grabs without providing much benefit to users.

Walters says that the advent of AI-generated media presents both new challenges and new opportunities for content creators.

“On the upside, AI allows creators to generate new content without spending time on new shoots,” he notes. “On the downside, pirates have a new tool that will allow them to create content that looks amazingly realistic, without the creator’s consent.”

The law has not yet caught up with the technology, he explains. The U.S. Copyright Office is still figuring out how to deal with AI-generated media, or AI media mixed with media created by humans.

“Creators, producers and publishers should address the use of AI head-on when negotiating content production and licensing deals,” he stresses. “While copyright ownership issues may not be sorted out for a while, stakeholders can allocate ownership and licensing rights through private contracts in a fair and ethical manner.”

Whether tackling existing threats through DMCA services and legal means, or keeping tabs on AI-driven trends, it is clear that content piracy protection is a must-have, for both individual creators and large-scale producers.

Fortunately, the experts and lawyers sworn to defend them from theft are evolving as fast as the threats they face, working to find pirates and halt them in their tracks or to help clients present thieves with a hard target. While the struggle is ongoing, these efforts help ensure that the creators and producers who invest so much time and talent into their creative efforts can capitalize on and prosper from their own work, rather than be taken advantage of and exploited by those who seek to steal from them.

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