Down the Tubes
How free streaming video threatens the porn industry.
Editor’s note: The following review is about pornography. If the subject itself offends, please stop reading. Why write about it? First, because pornography is “intimately linked with the evolution of communications technology,” as one history professor interviewed puts it. Second, because the porn industry, like the music and newspaper industries, faces a technological problem and doesn’t know what to do next.
I was 29 and had been living in Los Angeles for nine months when I took a job with Larry Flynt Publications. Technology was the last thing on my mind, but that would change quickly. The most famous of the 20 magazines under the roof was Hustler, the raunchiest of the three big American skin mags. But within a year of my arrival, in 2000, some of the less popular titles folded, and it was clear that a shift was in the air.
The shift worked to my benefit–my bosses created an online division and put me in charge of its editorial side. From that perch I saw firsthand how changing technologies both benefited and wounded the mighty porn machine. When I joined Flynt, it produced 20 magazines and four websites; today, it produces a handful of magazines and dozens of websites. Smaller companies gained power, since it was cheaper to put material online than to package and distribute magazines, tapes, or DVDs. And in the most wide-reaching development, high-speed Internet has spawned something called tube sites–file-hosting sites that offer rivers of free streaming video. These sites threaten to undo porn as we’ve known it.
The troubles for the porn studios began with a technology called BitTorrent, introduced in 2001, which made it easy for people to share data files over the Internet. This technology provided the world with unlimited free music, much to the dismay of the giant music publishers. But it was still somewhat clunky. If you wanted to watch a video, you had to download it, which took time and ate up space on your hard drive.
By 2005, the BitTorrent technology gave way to something more manageable and user-friendly: streaming video. This technology was used early and heavily by sites with names like PornHub, Xvideos, and YouPorn. Suddenly, anybody who wanted to watch a clip could do so almost instantly. You clicked on a video and it played in the browser: no more waiting, no more downloading.
This simple innovation has demolished the porn industry’s traditional way of doing business. Porn tube sites are now among the most visited websites in the world. According to the online measurement company Alexa, PornHub holds a worldwide traffic rank of 54. Xvideos is at number 53, and YouPorn is at number 64. The threat comes from the sheer ease of uploading content–anyone’s content–onto a site and then drawing users to view it. Most tubes describe themselves as aggregators of “user-generated content,” but the material they publish is much broader–many video clips are created, paid for, and owned by porn studios.
“Piracy has hurt us a lot,” says Ali Joone, founder and director of the adult-film company Digital Playground, which last year tracked illegal downloads of its most popular title, Pirates. “Over the course of a month, it was downloaded about four million times. And that’s just from a handful of sites. Even if those downloads cost us a thousand customers, let’s say, who were going to pay–that hurts.”
The porn studios face the same fundamental question as any content provider in the Internet age: how do you protect your stuff once it’s “out there”? The answer, so far, is, “Not well.”
The tube effect has been profound enough to inspire a recent public-service announcement featuring more than a dozen adult performers and directors pleading with fans not to view pirated porn. One actress, Charley Chase (who did not participate in the PSA but says she faces the same troubles), got into the business in late 2007 on the promise of lots of work at high pay. But the pay has dropped and the work has dried up. “And it’s all because of piracy,” she says.
According to Travis Nestor, a former agent for and a founder of the now-defunct It Models, a scene that might have paid an actress $900 in 2004 will now net her $600. In the same period, rates for male performers have dropped from around $500 per scene to $300. But that’s only half the effect, because there are fewer studios making fewer movies. Joone says that five years ago the industry might have released 400 new titles a week, but that output has been cut in half. “People just aren’t buying,” he says.
It’s difficult even for people in the industry to get a sense of how many studios have closed, partly because the porn business–unlike, say, the music business–does not consist of large conglomerates. Instead, it’s made up of shifting constellations of modest-sized companies. Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, says the number of studios is still in the thousands (representing everything from big production houses to “mom-and-pop shops”), but it’s dropping. “Our industry is woefully lacking in stats,” she says. “Everybody keeps their numbers tight to their chest. But we’ve definitely seen the decline.”
The tube sites, meanwhile, find shelter in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a U.S. law passed in 1998. The act says that websites aren’t responsible for any copyrighted material that shows up on their pages unless somebody points it out to them. “But that only protects them up to the point that they receive a cease-and-desist letter from us,” says Joone. “Then they have to take it down. If they don’t take it down, then that’s copyright infringement.”
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.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today