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PIPCU goes global in its pursuit of illegal websites

A ground-breaking initiative led by the new Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) to target websites providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content has shown an immediate global impact. Many of the websites generate substantial revenues from advertising.

The work of Operation Creative, designed to tackle internet-enabled crime, has seen 40 national and international websites suspended by domain name registrars.

At the same time an innovative three month pilot, in collaboration with the creative and advertising industries, designed to disrupt advertising revenues on infringing websites has seen a clear and positive trend, with a reduction in advertising from major household brands.

A detailed report looking at 61 websites over the course of the pilot, evidenced as profiting from advertising and operating without licenses from content creators, revealed the following:

  • During the pilot adverts from well-known brands decreased by 12%;
  • Adverts that lead the user to sites with explicit adult content or expose them to malware increased by 39% during the pilot, indicating that site owners may struggle to maintain their revenue streams when adverts from established brands are removed;
  • Almost half (46%) of total ads served to the sites were for unknown or unidentified brands which invited users to click through, often to fraudulent scams.

Operation Creative began in the summer with a partnership between the City of London Police, the UK advertising industry (represented by the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IAB UK), the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA)) and rights holders (represented by FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft), BPI (British Recorded Music Industry), IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) and The Publishers Association).

Rights holders identified the 61 websites that were providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content. Once illegal activity was confirmed by analysts from the City of London Police, a formal ‘prevention and deterrent’ process began to encourage infringing websites to engage with the Police, to correct their behaviour and to begin to operate legitimately.

Details of those failing to respond to this approach were then passed to a group of 60 brands, agencies and advertising technology businesses with a request to stop advertising on these websites.

The next phase of Operation Creative targeted the websites that persisted in offending. PIPCU sent out formal letters to domain name registrars explaining that they were hosting websites facilitating criminal copyright infringement under UK law as well as potentially breaching their terms and conditions. Registrars were then requested to suspend these websites until further notice. These sites are now under an on-going review by PIPCU officers.

Superintendent Bob Wishart, from PIPCU, said: “Operation Creative is being run by PIPCU and the digital and advertising sectors to really get to grips with a criminal industry that is making substantial profits by providing and actively promoting access to illegally obtained and copyrighted material.

“Together we have created a process that first and foremost encourages offenders to change their behaviour so they are operating within the law. However, if they refuse to comply we now have the means to persuade businesses to move their advertising to different platforms and, if offending continues, for registrars to suspend the websites.

“The success of Creative thus far is evidence of a growing international consensus that people should not be allowed to illegally profiteer from the honest endeavours of legitimate business enterprises.”

Kieron Sharp, FACT Director General, said: “FACT is delighted to be working with PIPCU and partners from the advertising, music and publishing sectors to protect UK consumers from websites that promote illegal content and also provide an unsafe platform that puts themselves and their families at risk. Many of these sites have no content filters and contain material that is unsuitable for children.

The UK’s creative sector is a vital driver of the economy, employing over 1.5 million people and driving £36 billion pounds of GVA (gross value added) to the UK economy. Film and TV production in the UK is looked upon as the best in the world and FACT continues to work on behalf of its members to protect jobs and future investment.”

Richard Mollet, CEO of The Publishers Association said: “The Publishers Association has been pleased to collaboratively work with the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit and other rights holders, with the common aim of upholding the rights of publishers and authors. Its creation has been a very significant development in the fight against online copyright infringement as well as protecting the public from inadequate content. We look forward to continuing to protect the rights of publishers and their authors.

Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of the BPI, said: “The early results from Operation Creative show that through working with the police and the online advertising industry, we can begin to disrupt the funding that sustains illegal websites.  These sites expose consumers to scams and malware, deny creators their living, and harm brands by associating them with illegal and unsafe content.  We hope to broaden the initiative to include more brands, advertising networks and other online intermediaries, to support innovation and growth in the legal digital music sector.”
 
Frances Moore, Chief Executive of IFPI, said: “This pioneering partnership between PIPCU, rights holders and the advertising industry is a welcome development that has the potential to help make the internet a better place for legitimate businesses.  Brands do not want their advertising misdirected onto sites where it may harm their reputation and Operation Creative will help address this problem.  I believe that this issue needs to be tackled worldwide, and this initiative will be watched closely by both law enforcement agencies and the private sector in other countries.”
 
David Ellison, ISBA’s Marketing Services Manager, said: “The vast sums brands invest in their online advertising can easily be eclipsed by the damage that can be done to a brand’s reputation by one misplaced advert. Initiative Operation Creative helps to protect advertisers by ensuring that their ads don’t appear on illegal, IP infringing websites, thereby starving these sites of revenue advertisers unwittingly provide. The pilot scheme proves that this project can make a difference.”
 
Guy Phillipson, CEO at IAB said: “We welcome the Operation Creative pilot as a major step in understanding how the advertising industry can assist in tackling the issue of advertising appearing against sites under investigation by police for copyright infringement. This unprecedented collaboration with PIPCU across rights holders and the digital advertising industry will help us as we continue to work towards protecting brand reputations within digital environments.”
 
Nigel Gwilliam, IPA Consultant Head of Digital said: “We and our member agencies take online ad misplacement very seriously. We are delighted to have been able to work with PIPCU and rights holders on this pioneering pilot to throttle advertising revenue to copyright infringing websites and look forward to further collaboration.”

The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) is based at City of London Police and has been set up to protect UK industries that produce legitimate, high quality, physical goods and online and digital content. The operationally independent unit is initially being funded by the Intellectual Property Office, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.​



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