How Twitter Handles Piracy -- An Inside Look

Last week, in the wake of protests over SOPA and PIPA, the controversial Internet anti-piracy legislation in Congress, Twitter released a database that offers a detailed view of how the company handles piracy. A look at the data yielded some surprises.

To understand why, it's helpful to know a few basic things about how Twitter works. Say someone posts a link to a pirated movie or song on Twitter. The record label or film studio that owns the right to that material can fire off a message asking Twitter to remove it. These messages are called DMCA requests, after the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the 1998 law against online file-sharing, and the Twitter database contained an archive of all of these messages from the past two years -– more than 4,000 of them.

In other words, Twitter answered the question, "Which companies are most aggressively pursuing pirates who use Twitter to promote their sites?" Universal Studios? Sony? Warner Brothers? All of those companies have plenty of material to protect -- and plenty of resources, one would assume, for chasing copyright violators.

But no. A New York film distributor called Magnolia Pictures was responsible for a third of the messages.

Magnolia isn't exactly a Hollywood powerhouse. The most recognizable name on the list of its recent releases is "Melancholia," a movie about the end of the world made by a European director, Lars Von Trier, known for his formal inventiveness and his fascination with stories of alienation and despair. The movie made only $3 million at the box office in the U.S., and it's not like most films in Magnolia's pipeline figure to do much better. The Magnolia website describes one of those movies, "Beyond the Black Rainbow," as "a Reagan-era fever dream inspired by hazy childhood memories of midnight movies and Saturday morning cartoons."

So Magnolia's disproportionate presence in Twitter's inbox is a bit of a mystery, until you realize that one of Magnolia's owners is Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks and an outspoken commentator on copyright issues.

Cuban is well acquainted with the world of online entertainment. In 1998, he started, offering live-streaming radio and video. He was an early and frequent critic of YouTube's business model, and from his online soapbox, Blog Maverick, he has criticized the recording industry for going after customers who download private material, while advocating a nuanced approach to the protection of intellectual property.

We asked Cuban why Magnolia was responsible for so many of the Twitter take-down requests. He responded with an email that looked as though it could have been dashed off on a Blackberry from the sidelines of a Mavericks game. Pirates, he wrote, "use twitter to automate the process of distributing content, we automate the process of finding them and taking them down."

"This isnt about personal use," he added, "I dont care about that."

In fact, as it turns out, Magnolia's automated attack on piracy was largely the work of another company, Web Sheriff. A British firm founded by an entertainment lawyer named John Giacobbi, Web Sheriff has contracts with several Hollywood companies, including Universal Pictures and Sony, and is one of the most prominent of the third-party companies that send take-down notices to Twitter, file-sharing sites, fan forums, and other corners of the web where pirated material is posted. According to Giacobbi, Web Sheriff was responsible for at least half the Twitter take-down notices.

Like Cuban, Giacobbi advocates a nuanced approach to fighting piracy. "We treat our fans as fans, not criminals," Giacobbi said. He said he works with band managers to get them to provide fans with two free tracks, which he can then post on their forums alongside the messages asking them to take down the illegally uploaded material. Though Cuban described Magnolia's piracy response as "automated," Giacobbi and his employees apparently take a lot of time to engage in conversation with fans and potential pirates.

Giacobbi pointed to a comment thread on a forum for fans of the British band Prodigy. It stretches 18 pages and consists mainly of fans mocking Web Sheriff and posting pictures of cops and donuts, while Giacobbi and his company play along, making fun of themselves and at one point offering to treat everyone to a donut feast.

According to Giacobbi, Web Sheriff aims at "working with the fans instead of against them." In a world where the Internet reigns and piracy is the norm, there may not be many other options.

Click here to download the Twitter DMCA data used in this report.