Axel Braun is about as close as you can get to a household name in porn. He’s behind the biggest adult film titles of the last ten years, and his porn parody, Star Wars XXX, is one of the best selling adult films of all time. He also can’t make a film for $500,000, which used to be pittance in porn, without losing money. “[A]nd the worst part is that before the movie even comes out it’s gonna be pirated,” Braun told Gizmodo.
In the last five years, since Braun made Star Wars XXX, the porn industry has been gutted by piracy. Raincoaters (the term for folks who watch and wank and then click out) have their choice of avenues for watching fast, free porn via tube sites like PornHub and torrent sites like KickAss and The PirateBay.
Pornhub tries to combat piracy (it only took them four days to take down Kanye’s latest album after it appeared on the site) and the learning curve of torrents has generally kept pirated media (music, TV, non-adult films) out of the hands of the average fwapper. Yet piracy is still eviscerating the once booming industry.
One major reason? Google.
“When you look this up,” Braun said, “you see that there’s a million torrent sites that will carry the movie and they come up on Google.”
Search for a download of a porn parody versus its mainstream cousin and you’ll immediately see what Braun is talking about. Mainstream films point you to a number of sites where you can legally download the whole movie. Add the XXX on the end and suddenly you’re in the darknet. Cool if you’re a screenwriter researching that hacking episode of your show. Less cool if you’re a straight edge wanker looking to stay on the right side of the law.
Why is it so easy to search for pirated porn? According to Braun, “it’s the reality that people don’t care about us.”
He’s not talking about avid watchers—he’s talking about the adult film industry itself. It’s a sentiment shared by Pete Meyers, a marketing scientist at Moz and an expert on search engine optimization. He understands how Google’s page ranking works better than anyone outside of Google itself. “I strongly suspect that Google isn’t going to go out of their way to address adult film industry complaints,” Meyers told Gizmodo. “They’re much more likely to focus on piracy in mainstream film and music.”
Officially, Google is against piracy of all kinds and works hard to keep the stolen material out of the hands of the layperson. A spokeperson responding to my query said:
“In addition to removing pages from search results when notified by copyright owners, Google also factors in the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site as one signal among the hundreds that we take into account when ranking search results.”
And the porno purveyors have worked hard to keep the pirated stuff out of peoples’ hands. “We have people in place who every day—I’m not kidding—every day their whole day at work is taking down pirated content,” Braun said.
That includes people like Nate Glass at TakedownPiracy. Glass aggressively hunts offenders and nails them with takedown requests. Unfortunately, diligent use of the legal equivalent of “Please Stop” can only go so far (see RIAA’s efforts turning them into the douche nozzles of piracy discussions). Glass is fighting millions of raincoaters looking to get their rocks off before a big date or after a bad day or just because it’s Tuesday. One against millions is an uphill battle unless you’re Princess Leia as played by Allie Haze.
So why is Google, however unintentionally, helping the pirates and curb-stomping the adult film industry? Google is the largest search engine in the world. Google crawls every single page available on the internet and then uses carefully designed algorithms to sort out what the best links are. There’s no dude in a room choosing which link will be the first one you see when you search “Star Wars XXX.” Everything is subject to the almighty algorithms, and they’re not perfect.
“Porn studios vs. pirates is a situation that isn’t that different from product manufacturers vs resellers,” Meyers said. In both instances, one group of people are ripping off the product information from the other group of people, and while “Google is very good at seeing all of these copies—they’re still not very good at sorting out the source of the information.”
That makes it difficult for Google to find the original content. The problem is compounded by the fact that we’re talking about video, and there isn’t enough data in video for Google’s search crawlers to figure out what’s legit and what isn’t. When a site is lacking in rich metadata, SEO experts like Meyers call them “thin” and to Google “all of this content looks ‘thin,’ and they’re just trying to sort out which one is the skinniest.”
Thanks to a major update to Google’s panda algorithm last year, these “thin” sites, be they legit or pirate content, should all be on a level playing field. The pirate sites can’t “game the system” like SEO farms of old. There’s no slew of buzzwords they need to load on their pages. They just have to have the same content as the regular sites and then they have to go after the two things Google places the most importance on: be useful to the user and have to have lots of “backlinks,” content links that appear on other sites.
Unfortunately for the adult film industry, free porn from tube sites and torrent sites is a lot more popular than the legit stuff. Your pal on Facebook is more likely to link to Superman Vs Batman XXX from The Pirate Bay than from a legitimate source.
That all builds a cascade effect, where the pirate sites are establishing more authority with users (and Google) and the legit sites languish. As Meyers notes, “The torrent sites especially are so popular that they just naturally attract ranking signals.” They’re loaded not just with porn, but with movies, books, music, and television shows, and users (and Google) love that. “It’s hard for a small studio to compete.”
Meyers suggests that adult film studios may have to eventually band together to “build an Orbitz-like model,” where all the legit porn can be found in one place, if they want to do better in Google rankings.
Axel Braun has other ideas. Forget DMCAs and Google rankings. Instead he’s crowdsourcing one of his next films, Empire Strikes Back XXX, asking for that half a million dollars he’d be wasting otherwise, and then he’s releasing it for free. “My best case scenario is that a hundred thousand fans wanted to see the movie, and they each give me five bucks. The movie’s done.”