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For the tube operators, the risks have been worth it. “Most of the time, the tube sites are just two or three people,” Joone says. “They haven’t paid for the content. The only expense they have is bandwidth, and then they have advertisers paying them a lot of money for the traffic they’re creating.” Joone says a typical tube site might pull in several hundred thousand dollars every month.

One defense against the tube sites is “spider” technology. Spiders, or Web crawlers, are employed by search engines to index site pages. In the porn world, a spider could find stolen content hiding anywhere in cyberspace. But it’s an exhausting effort, and the results are weak at best. “Even with spiders, we aren’t winning,” says Los Angeles-based adult-film director Jonni Darkko. “Most of the tube sites are run out of foreign countries, so there’s not much we can do to them. Plus, if they receive an order to remove a pirated scene, instead of taking it down, what they’ll do is just change the title and put it somewhere else on the page.”

There have been a few lawsuits for copyright infringement in the porn world. In April, adult actress Vicky Vette filed a lawsuit against the file-hosting site RapidShare for allowing her content to be given away. Vette told me she has no idea if she can win but felt she needed to draw a line in the sand. “We have to try and stand up now,” she says, “or an entire generation of surfers is going to think it is ridiculous to pay for anything.”

Joone acknowledges that it’s been a bit of a “cat-and-mouse game.” But he says the tube sites are a technology problem with a technological solution–in this case, something called digital fingerprinting. “We’ve been using it for the last two months, and we’ve targeted about 10 tube sites with it,” he says. The technology essentially “ingests” a film, Joone says: “Be it one frame, be it 10 minutes–it can find it, and what it does then is send an automatic cease-and-desist takedown notice. And then it checks back every two hours to make sure it’s been taken down. And it will log that clip for legal purposes.” He’s confident that this technology will provide enough evidence to make lawsuits effective where they haven’t been in the past. “We do have a consortium of adult producers that right now, behind the scenes, are taking a tube site to court,” he says.

All this back-and-forth between the porn studios and the tube sites is just the latest episode in a relationship between porn and technology that goes back at least to the printing press. And the rise of the tubes is hardly the first time technology has overturned pornography’s established modes of business. The Polaroid camera, the VCR, pay-per-view, 900 numbers, live chat, video chat, and high-speed broadband all got early exposure as porn delivery systems. As a result, porn has been normalizing the use of new technologies for a long time.

“Things like the book or the motion picture weren’t invented with the idea of ‘Oh, let’s make pornography with this,’ ” says ­Jonathan Coopersmith, a history professor at Texas A&M who has studied the porn industry for more than a decade. But porn “quickly becomes a tool for diffusing knowledge of how these new things work, and it creates an early market,” he says. “Even without porn, we’d probably all have high-speed Internet, but it would have been adopted more slowly, in the same way that the spread of the VCR would have been delayed if porn weren’t around, because the early adopters wouldn’t be there.”

Diane Duke thinks the tube sites and the porn studios will ultimately learn to work together, because it’s in both their interests. The tube sites won’t want to deal with lawsuits, and the studios won’t be able to say no to all those additional page views. Duke envisions a system in which a clip on a tube site would link to a pay site, allowing viewers to buy more scenes or the whole movie. The tube site would get a cut of any purchase.

Duke says people focus on the fact that the tube sites are free, but they’ve got another advantage–they make it quick and easy for people to access clips. She says the porn studios must create a pay model that doesn’t make the customer feel it’s a hassle to hand over a few dollars in exchange for a scene and that allows the source of the charge to be disguised. She imagines something like iTunes, with movies broken into chunks sold like individual songs.

If these options don’t work, there’s always another: some porn producers are buying up tube sites themselves. Other producers are building new tubes, giving away quick clips of their own movies in the hope that advertising revenues and site memberships (offering higher quality and full-length clips) will make up for their losses in the DVD market.

Joone says the companies that thrive will find a way to offer something that people think is worth paying for. Digital Playground, he believes, has survived in part because it caters to the couples market. Such customers, he says, want decent production values and at least some kind of story; they’re much less likely to be satisfied by a series of disjointed clips on a tube site. But he also acknowledges that the tubes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“If you just want something to look at, you can get that for free,” he says. “You can get that from now until the end of your life.”

Scott Fayner ran the popular gossip site Luke­Ford.com, covering the porn industry. Today he publishes a monthly online magazine dedicated to Boston dogs, called MassArf.

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