Last November, the cybercrime unit of the French military police shut down the country’s largest pirate site, Zone-Telechargement (Download Zone). This was a huge problem for the millions of people who visited the site on a daily basis.
Founded in 2011, Zone-Telechargement’s popularity soared after the closure of Megaupload, which was also hugely popular in France until its shutdown early 2012. It’s been dead ever since though, despite suggestions it might somehow return to life.
Interestingly, however, a site claiming to be a reincarnation of the original is now trying to scoop up traffic, with promises that the excitement can be found at a new URL.
“Welcome to the new Zone-Telechargement! This is the new address of the indexing site to find movies and series,” a notice on the site reads.
“We make every effort to ensure that you can watch your movies and series in the best conditions and in complete safety. Therefore, we invite you as a Zone-Telechargement user to help us in our big mission! Share our site, talk about it!”
During the past couple of days, people have certainly been talking about it, but not for the usual reasons. As reported by NextInpact, the site already has 100,000 links on Google after being launched sometime in August.
But this is no ordinary pirate site. In fact, it’s not a pirate site at all. While it looks exactly like its pirate namesake, the site links only to legal content on platforms such as Amazon, iTunes, and other official sources.
NextInpact reports that the site is hosted in France and uses film posters and metadata hosted by the National Film Center, which grants official vendors access to a database of supporting content to help them sell their products online.
So, could this be an innovative and unconventional service set up by elements of the film industry to suck in pirates, perhaps?
TF decided to look into the possibility by pulling information from WHOIS, DNS and MX records, hoping to find a trace of who’s behind the operation. None of the searches yielded much information of direct value but they did turn up something else.
Zone-Telechargement.al, it seems, is not on its own. Hosted on the same server at OVH in France is Voirfilms.al which clones VoirFilms.org, a pirate site that was ordered to be blocked by the Paris District Court earlier this year.
Just like Zone-Telechargement.al, Voirfilms.al only links to legal content. However, when one searches for movies, at least the first two sets of links to content contain affiliate codes for Amazon and a local service, meaning the site’s operators get a kickback from any sale.
Given they use the same host server, mail server, and referral codes (tag=blue0d7-21 for Amazon), we considered it likely that the same people are behind both domains, passing them off as pirate sites in an effort to generate revenue.
Then, on Friday afternoon, NextInpact editor Marc Rees contacted us with a really interesting update. After further research, Rees had concluded that anti-piracy outfit Blue Efficience was probably behind the scheme. Sure enough, after contacting founder and CEO Thierry Chevillard, the company confirmed the project.
“We always had the idea to promote the legal offer. Anti-piracy protection is good, but it is insufficient without this component,” Chevillard told Rees.
Chevillard said that since video-on-demand platforms have difficulties in getting themselves noticed over pirate sites, his company took the decision to mimic the pirate strategy.
“[T]he pirate sites are extremely talented at putting themselves ahead in search engines where they beat the legal offers,” he said, adding that using similar weapons was the solution.
Chevillard told NextInpact that his company initially published links to content without the affiliate kickback but later took the for-profit route in order to “partially offset the costs, even if we are far from covering the costs of developing and operating the site.”
Of course, there’s a certain irony in an anti-piracy outfit actively pirating a pair of pirate sites, particularly since it clearly pirated the pirate sites’ logos and graphics, in order to pass the clones off as the real thing. However, Chevillard sees them as fair game and says his company will take action in the unlikely event the pirates take legal action.
The big question, of course, is whether the clone sites are having the desired effect of encouraging legal purchases. According to early data from Zone-Telechargement.al, around five purchases are made out of every 1000 clicks on content listed by the site.
While Blue Efficience’s cover has been well and truly blown, the company is undeterred and says it will expand its pirate site cloning business. If the strategy reaches any scale, that could be a whole new level of spam for would-be pirates to wade through. Nevertheless, there is a comedy ending to this story.
It appears that since the fake sites are so convincing, rival anti-piracy outfits have been asking Google to take down pages (1,2) from its indexes. Most ‘impressive’ are the efforts from takedown outfit Rivendel, which has filed dozens of complaints against these ‘pirate’ sites. Ouch.