One study reports that websites and apps that feature pirated movies and TV shows generate $1.3 billion in revenue annually, including from big companies like Amazon.com Inc.
Hacking is also a major source of malware, and some ads placed on sites contain links that hackers use to steal personal information or launch ransomware attacks, according to the online nonprofit Digital Citizens Alliance and anti-piracy firm White Bullet Solutions. Stopping some online crime, groups have identified at least 84,000 illegal entertainment sites.
The study underscores how difficult the piracy problem is for both Hollywood studios and companies that distribute digital ads. The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more people to watch movies and TV shows over the web, as criminals have a greater chance of successfully targeting victims.
“Piracy causes direct harm to creators and others who lose income when their content is stolen,” the report’s authors wrote. “Big brands face reputational risks when their ads appear on illegal websites.”
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The White Bullet determined the scope of advertising revenue for pirated content by monitoring the most popular sites and applications active between June 2020 and May 2021. It sharpened about 6000 sites and 900 applications and monitored the ads that appeared.
Major brands accounted for about 4% of ads on hacking websites and 24% of ads on hacking apps, with Amazon, Facebook, and Google represented. The bulk of the ads were generally in the form of ‘sponsored content’, which often took the form of ‘clickbait’ links that looked like they would lead to an interesting news story or video. Small businesses, adult content, fraud, and malware made up the rest of the ads.
Advertisements from major brands, although a small portion of the total, present a particular problem in preventing pirated content sites from spreading. They make an entire website appear more legitimate, and can increase the likelihood that users will click on fraudulent ads that appear next to them, according to the study.
Any advertising on pirated websites and apps is almost certainly unintentional, but there is evidence that companies can put a stop to it if they are vigilant. The report said an initiative called the Trustworthy Accountability Group alerted Amazon to the amount of its ads on pirate sites in early 2021, and the company’s advertising volume on illegal sites had decreased over the course of the year.
“Failure to select tools that assess hacking risks in real time means advertisers are funding criminals – a multibillion dollar problem,” Peter Szyszko, CEO and founder of White Bullet, said in an email. “At best, this is negligence. At worst, this is the willful financing of intellectual property crime.”
Piracy may be on the rise as Hollywood studios, dealing with declining theater attendance during the pandemic, are releasing new films online much earlier than in the past. Movie star Scarlett Johansson has cited piracy as a particular problem in her recent lawsuit against Walt Disney over the online debut of her movie “Black Widow.”
Facebook declined to comment on the report. Spokespeople for Amazon and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
– Bloomberg News