A specialist unit of the City of London Police has launched an ad-replacement campaign on websites providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content.
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The move is in line with the government’s efforts to combat intellectual property (IP) theft by cracking down on online piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods.
In April, Mike Weatherley MP, IP adviser to prime minister David Cameron, said the next step in the fight was to block advertising revenue to sites selling pirated or counterfeit goods.
The European Commission is also developing a single-market IP policy that will take a "follow the money" approach to transnational counterfeiting activities.
In line with this strategy, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (Pipcu) has begun replacing ads on copyright-infringing websites with banners warning users the site is under criminal investigation.
Working in collaboration with content-verification technology provider, Project Sunblock, police banners are now replacing a wide range of legitimate brand adverts on infringing websites.
The campaign is the latest phase of Operation Creative, an initiative to disrupt and prevent websites providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content, led by Pipcu in partnership with ad agencies.
Operation Creative is aimed at cutting off pirate websites’ revenue from advertising, preventing brands appearing on sites that could damage their reputation through criminal association, raising consumer awareness about the illegality of the websites they are using, and reducing online fraud.
The operation will target sites identified and reported to Pipcu by rights holders who are required to provide detailed evidence of how the site is involved in copyright infringement.
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Once Pipcu officers have verified the reports, the unit will contact the site owner to offer an opportunity to engage with the police and correct their behaviour.
If a website fails to respond, police may use a variety of tactical options, including seeking suspension of the site from the domain registrar, advert replacement and disrupting advertising revenue.
“This initiative is another step forward for the unit in tackling IP crime and disrupting criminal profits,” said Pipcu head Andy Fyfe.
“Copyright-infringing websites are making huge sums of money though advert placement, therefore disrupting advertising on these sites is crucial and this is why it is an integral part of Operation Creative.
“This work also helps us to protect consumers. When adverts from well-known brands appear on illegal websites, they lend them a look of legitimacy and inadvertently fool consumers into thinking the site is authentic,” he said.
Chief executive of Project Sunblock, Duncan Trigg, said: “Without realising it, advertisers are allowing their brands to be associated with illegal sites, and regrettably, this happens more often than it should.
“But each time it does, brands are effectively putting money in the back pocket of criminals. As advertisers funnel more money into online spending, initiatives like this are crucial to safeguarding their brands as well as their budget,” he said.
In June, UK business secretary Vince Cable called for international collaboration to fight piracy and counterfeiting, saying national efforts to protect intellectual property are insufficient.
“Cross-border leakages are now enormous, and there is a recognition of the potential losses as a result of cross-border piracy," he told the first International IP Enforcement Summit in London.
Cable said that although piracy now carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years and UK legislation allows enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants and seize counterfeit goods, more needs to be done.
Payment service providers and advertisers should boycott "dodgy websites", and alternatives need to be developed to encourage people to use legal routes, he said.
Cable said there is a direct link between economic performance and IP theft, with every 1% increase in IP crime estimated to cost the UK economy 1% of GDP, which works out at £1.7bn.
Heinz Zourek, director-general of the European Commission's Taxation and Customs Union, backed Cable's call, saying enforcement needs to be done in a collaborative, co-operative manner.
"IP enforcement policy ought to be focused on the fight against commercial-scale IP infringement activity, which is most harmful for the EU economy," he said.