Digital piracy has been the scourge of creative industries since the dawn of the internet age. For over 20 years, music labels, movie studios, publishers and software developers have seen potential profits siphoned away through illegal sharing and theft of copyrighted works. The U.S. government‘s latest effort to combat this persistent piracy comes in the form of their yearly list of notorious online markets trafficking in pirated goods.
Dubbed the "Notorious Markets List," this report from the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) calls out over 30 websites and services accused of enabling substantial copyright infringement. Ranging from torrent portals to unlicensed streaming sites to platforms with counterfeit commerce, these piracy hotspots earn special scrutiny for their brazen operations. But does naming and shaming these hubs impact the global piracy problem? Can recent additions to the list expect a bumpier road ahead? And what precautions should you, the everyday internet user, take before visiting sites offering free movies, music, books and more?
The Far-Reaching Harms of Digital Theft
While young internet natives may see piracy as a harmless crime without victims, the losses tell a far grimmer story. Just looking at the music industry, the RIAA estimates piracy costs them nearly $3 billion annually in lost revenues from illegal downloads. That translates to massive hits taken by both superstar acts and lesser known artists struggling to build careers. The film industry likewise cites billions lost at the box office when blockbuster leaks hit torrent sites ahead of premiere dates. From missed earnings for actors, producers and theater staff, down to lower budgets for future projects, piracy gnaws away at entertainment livelihoods. Even the software world feels the burn, with developers being denied fair compensation when applications are cracked and distributed for free.
Beyond just big corporate losses, everyday workers in creative fields see job opportunities dry up as profits shrink in piracy plagued sectors. The Motion Picture Association (MPAA) suggests over 500,000 jobs have been lost in the film industry and related fields due to online piracy. That half million jobs could have provided careers to Pixelsmith Digital Artists, SFX Workshop Costume Designers, Catering Companies, and beyond. Instead, they fell victim to the unseen consequences of digital theft.
Two Decades of Legislation and Enforcement
Efforts to protect copyright holders from online piracy can be traced back to the late 1990s file sharing craze fueled by Napster and other peer-to-peer networks. With the internet still in its infancy, there was little consensus on how to balance open access with intellectual property rights. Entertainment groups like the RIAA responded aggressively with litigation against individuals sharing copyrighted music.
Over the following years, major legislation emerged to strengthen anti-piracy laws for the internet age. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 established stricter penalties for circumventing digital rights management. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) attempted to empower law enforcement against foreign piracy sites, but faced major opposition over free speech concerns before stalling out in 2012. While debates continued around these measures, both industry and government moved to directly disrupt major hubs used to share pirated materials.
Key raids in the early 2000s took down early pirate dens like Napster and Razorback2. The domain seizures against MegaUpload, KickAssTorrents and Demonoid in subsequent years highlighted the risk even largest sites faced. And services attempting to simplify piracy saw their infrastructure dismantled, as with the legal assault on SetTV in 2018. Despite these enforcement wins, online piracy persists in evolving forms.
Nominations and Evidence Build the Notorious Markets List
In the ongoing battle against piracy‘s next wave, the Notorious Markets list represents the U.S. effort to name and shame remaining bad actors. Managed by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the report calls out online markets and services deemed to "engage in and facilitate substantial piracy and counterfeiting."
Trade groups representing entertainment, software and publishing industries help supply nominations for the list based on piracy reports and site monitoring. These include heavy hitters like the RIAA, MPAA, BSA, and ESA who document illicit activities across platforms. Each fall, they submit recommendations and evidentiary packages to USTR supporting their nominations.
The agency analyzes the input from these copyright defenders along with information from previous years and their own review. By December, they finalize and publish the annual Notorious Markets List to call broad attention to ongoing piracy threats.
Torrent Titans and Streaming Offenders Rank Among 2021‘s Most Notorious
Unsurprisingly, many veterans of the piracy world kept slots on the 2021 notorious list. Torrent titans like ThePirateBay, RARBG, 1337X continue enabling access to unauthorized copies of movies, shows, games, and software through torrenting. Debuting on this year‘s list, RARBG highlights the persistence of torrent piracy even as streaming displaces peer-to-peer systems.
Unauthorized streaming sites also remain a booming business built on copyright infringement. The MPAA reports streaming piracy traffic increased by more than 100% between 2019 and 2021. Sites called out for enabling this illicit streaming include prime offenders like Fmovies, Cuevana3, PelisPedia and Pelisplus. Such sites will often host pirated content on cyberlockers or embed videos from rogue YouTube accounts.
SciHub represents an emerging area of concern on the 2021 list. The site provides free unauthorized access to academic journals and literature normally locked behind paywalls and library subscriptions. This effectively steals copyrighted works on a mass scale, depriving publishers of revenue while violating author rights. SciHub signals that piracy threats now extend far beyond just Hollywood entertainment.
Some nominations stem from major platforms where illegitimate activities have flourished. E-commerce giant AliExpress and social media portal VKontakte came under fire for enabling substantial sales of counterfeit goods and pirated media. While legitimate use cases exist on these platforms, their operators face accusations of turning a blind eye to rampant intellectual property crime.
Bracing For Impact? Curbing Notorious Markets Remains an Uphill Battle
Some may see the Notorious Markets report as a mere slap on the wrist with no lasting impact. It imposes no direct penalties or enforcement actions against sites named. However, being publicly called out for enabling piracy still brings unwanted attention that many operators prefer to avoid. Some attempt to reform their practices just enough to avoid repeat nominations. Others find themselves struggling to maintain infrastructure as payment and hosting partners back away.
Still, most veterans of the list tend to persist with business as usual despite their notorious designation. Many remain safely outside the reach of U.S. authorities. The Pirate Bay, RARBG and others continue operating out of Sweden, Russia and other jurisdictions beyond easy prosecution. With server networks widely distributed and domains easily shifted, they can often workaround any disruption efforts. Until bolder global cooperation emerges around enforcing copyright online, major pirate markets named on the list avoid facing existential threats.
Protecting Yourself in Piracy‘s Murky Waters
Reading through the USTR‘s report, you may feel temptation around accessing some of these condemned piracy sites offering free movies, music and more. However, it‘s wise to think twice before clicking on sketchy "Watch Now" buttons. Aside from the ethical concerns of supporting digital theft, piracy sites also pose serious privacy and malware dangers:
Pirate sites frequently spread malware in downloaded files and bundled software installers. This can expose you to information-stealing trojans and other nasty infections. If an app, movie file or ebook seems questionable, run a virus scan before opening.
Beware of phishing schemes and fraudulent offers designed to steal your personal information. Pirate sites survive by monetizing users through scams and spam offers. Avoid entering any sensitive login credentials.
Your browsing history on piracy sites can be tracked, logged and sold on the data black market, jeopardizing anonymity. Protect your privacy by using a secure VPN on all devices.
Fortunately, countless legitimate and affordable options exist for streaming entertainment, software and reading material without supporting piracy. Here are just some ways to access content through proper channels:
For the latest shows and movies, choose from subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max or specialty options like Shudder and AMC+. Monthly fees compare to a single theater ticket.
Utilize free ad-supported platforms including Tubi, PlutoTV, Peacock and Crackle. These provide movies and shows 100% legally, simply with commercial breaks.
Your local library provides a treasure trove of movie rentals, ebooks, audiobooks, comics and more at no cost if you have a membership. Print out a temporary library card online in minutes.
For affordable game and software access, choose safe distributors like Steam, GOG and Itch.io. Developers receive fair compensation with prices far below pirated options.
Cutting piracy out of the equation both benefits creators and keeps you safe online. Hopefully government efforts like the Notorious Markets list continue raising awareness around pirated content concerns. But real change requires us users to make smart choices and access media through proper, rewarding channels. Together, we can build an internet ecosystem that is open, affordable and respects the value of artistry. Stay safe out there!