Tubes vs. Torrents: the Ethics of Piracy

While the cost to produce a work and the need to recoup that cost in order to make further production feasible—much less a viable career—does bear mentioning, more interesting to me are the ethics of piracy.

The adult film industry has been in a downward spiral of budget slashing for years. Performers’ rates have remained generally unchanged while inflation increases each year. Long term crew members have found themselves replaced by inexperienced people willing to do their jobs for lower pay. The quality of videos made under these conditions tends to suffer.

It is easy to point at online piracy as the reason for the declining sales that are causing these budget cuts, but the situation isn’t quite that simple. 

A long time ago, when the internet was much more like the Wild West and adult video companies made their money selling VHS tapes to brick and mortar stores, everybody charged too much for their product. Rather, they charged what the upper limit of what the market would bear, knowing the consumer didn’t have many options.

As access to the internet became more widespread, studios popped up to serve the new digital market. This prompted established production companies to either build their own commercial web presences or sell the rights to their back catalogue for pennies. Shady business practices abounded, including hidden add-ons—inconspicuous pre-checked buttons signing the purchaser up for extra services at extra cost unless actively un-checked, similarly to Columbia House’s negative option billing system—and alleged double-processing of credit cards. In his book Beaver Street, Robert Rosen provides rare documentation of ascam involving High Society magazine, in which users were asked to verify their age via credit card information to access an ostensibly free tour and then auto-billed $60 a month.

Not that business practices ranging from disingenuous to fraudulent are unique to pornography. Ponzi schemes have existed since the early 1920s, and product subscriptions like Enzyte and Proactiv can be notoriously difficult to cancel. But dirt is always dirtier when it’s in porn’s backyard.

By the mid 2000s when free tube sites full of explicit streaming videos arrived on the scene, the online porn viewing audience was primed to adore them. They’d been overcharged; they’d been taught that giving their credit card information to an adult site could result in theft. It is difficult to blame them for choosing to watch stolen and freely distributed content, given the risk involved with paying for it.

According to a 2011 feature in New York, a man named Fabian Thylmann bought a company named Mansef in 2010 to mash their tube sites and other properties together to form a new company called Manwin.

Take a minute to look at that name: Manwin. Man. Win. The name seems to drip patriarchal entitlement.

Manwin’s tube sites enabled users to upload whatever they pleased, including videos owned by other production companies. All this free porn helped Manwin grow the traffic flowing to their websites. 

As you may already know, when consumers view content on free sites (whether blogs, news outlets, or porn tubes) they’re paying with clicks. While that doesn’t cost the consumer anything, it enables the website they’re clicking on to generate money.

Manwin used their traffic to sell ad space to those same production companies they enabled theft from. Production companies paid a lot for banners. Manwin then began buying the companies they had helped devalue, including Digital Playground—the company I was contracted to for a number of years. I believe the worst sorts of capitalists would consider Manwin’s behavior a win of the highest order.

I see a major difference in intent between torrents and tube sites. With regards to pornography, tubes and torrents are diametrically opposed reactions to the infinite reproducibility of online content. 

Torrent sites like the Pirate Bay seem committed to freedom of information and freedom of speech, hosting anonymous leaks exposing government and corporate misconduct alongside copy written entertainment media. One founder, Peter Sunde, has been incredibly vocal about the overreach of proposed laws like SOPA and PIPA.

Aside from notable exceptions like WoodRocket and PornTube, most of the major tube sites are owned by Manwin (now called MindGeek.) The Manwin/MindGeek network of tubes looks like effective, market crushing monopoly and many of their properties have engaged in “settle or we’ll sue” tactics—directly targeting individual downloaders with lawsuits demanding inflated payment for product viewed—known as copyright trolling.

Would you care to guess which one I’d prefer you pirate my work from? As TRENCHCOATx starts to release the first pornographic videos I’ve directed (and funded) into the world, I’m wishing the Creative Commons had an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike-NoTubesOnlyTorrents license. In lieu of that, I have this blog.

So I’d love it if enough people paid for Graphic Depictions to make it possible for me to make more things like it, but I don’t believe in copyright trolling or cracking down on sharing. Create all the GIFs, clips, and screen grabs you want (just know that the rights to the music belong to Sxip Shirey) and share them with the world, but please don’t charge people for them and please keep the name of the project attached. And please, for the love of all things filthy and explicit, keep it off the damn Manwin/MindGeek owned tube sites.