How to rid the web of ad-funded piracy

Four surprisingly easy ways to prevent your ads from inadvertently funding pirate websites.

Today’s ad tech solutions have made de-funding piracy a tractable problem, and tackling it benefits all parties, says Peter Szyszko, CEO of White Bullet

In the world of online advertising, piracy is a real problem. Programmatic ads are scattered across the web en masse, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that a proportion of these are picked up by sites serving illegitimate content, such as movies, TV shows and sporting events. 

The ability of pirate sites to present themselves as legitimate can make them difficult to detect and therefore avoid – and the costs to the rest of the ad ecosystem can be staggering. The US Chamber of Commerce estimated that revenue losses due to piracy amounted to $29.2bn in 2019. And during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the number of fraudulent content streams rose dramatically.

Until relatively recently, the industry simply accepted that a certain proportion of ads would end up on pirate sites. But now, thanks largely to modern ad tech solutions, there are easy steps that brands, advertisers and publishers can take to prevent their businesses from funding criminal activity.

Why do we need to combat piracy?

Naturally, publishers and content creators don’t want their IP to be used without their permission or monetisation. Stolen content doesn’t reward the creators and so stifles innovation. But brands also have skin in the game, as ad placements on pirate websites damage their reputation through association and produce a much lower ROI in comparison to legitimate sites. 

Illegitimate websites are heavily ad-funded. Therefore, if we can prevent these sites from connecting to the advertising supply chain, they’ll be starved of revenue and won’t be able to sustain their operational costs. If this were achieved it would dramatically cut the amount of pirated material available on the internet. And not only is combatting online piracy the right thing to do – it’s also good for business.

So how can brands and their agencies better protect themselves and help rid the web of piracy?

1. Participate in industry anti-piracy programmes

Programmes such as TAG’s [Trustworthy Accountability Group]’s Brand Safety Certified Guidelines outline the requirements for direct buyers, direct sellers, intermediaries, content verification services, and anti-piracy service providers to address brand safety in the digital advertising supply chain. Combating piracy is a core element of brand safety, and companies who abide by these standards receive a seal to display as a public commitment to combating piracy. Participating in these programmes helps advertisers and intermediaries get full transparency on which publishers are pirates. This is a key way to ensure safety. 

Using White Bullet’s data, TAG’s Project Brand Integrity – which has reached out to brands and agencies placing ads on pirate websites – has resulted in a 79% reduction in ad impressions for the brands contacted. More than half of these brands reduced ad impressions by 99%.

2. Choose ad partners with the right tools

As the point at which the digital advertising bidstream converges, ad exchanges and ad networks have the power to impact piracy the most. However, some of these platforms haven’t seen much benefit in tackling the problem thus far, since it’s the brands who foot the bill, after all. 

Therefore, it’s up to brands and marketers to choose ad partners that offer the best tools to protect them and avoid illegal sites. And as awareness of ad-funded piracy grows, more and more will turn to partners that use best in class providers that can keep up to date with the dynamic piracy ecosystem and truly understand what is pirate and what is safe. Ad exchanges, DSPs and ad networks need to do all they can to accommodate those purchasing ads before they move (more of) their advertising in-house.

3. Adopt real-time solutions for best results

Intelligent software can block ads from running on illegitimate sites with real-time data verification. These include ad verification systems that can assess and identify infringing pages by analysing the context and content in near real-time. They can notify advertisers about nefarious sites and have these sites removed or blocked from ad bidding.

A new generation of ad networks are also able to use smart IP infringement databases to block out copyright-infringing inventory at source. Once you’re using high-quality ad networks, enabling anti-piracy features should be as simple as flicking a virtual switch. 

4. Support anti-piracy legislation

It’s common knowledge that laws which target the end users of illegal streams have been in place for decades, but are almost always unenforceable at scale in a practical sense. However, other legal measures can be effective. Interpol recently announced their new I-SOP (Interpol Stop Online Piracy) initiative. This allows law enforcement agencies to confiscate the assets of piracy networks and shut down marketplaces that trade illegal content. Supporting these initiatives shows government bodies that the industry needs these protections.