Roughly a decade ago, the online piracy landscape was fairly straightforward and easy to navigate.
There were a dozen or so household names that drew most of the traffic, including KickassTorrents, Torrentz, YTS, EZTV, Rapidshare and Putlocker.
All of these sites have long since disappeared, but interestingly their brands live on. Opportunistic copycats often use these familiar names to build their own piracy empires, something seen more recently with 123movies, Cuevana, and other icons.
It’s perhaps fitting that sites that relied heavily on copying are being copied themselves; the original operators can hardly complain about that. But for unwitting users, the landscape can be quite confusing, especially when scammers and malware peddlers jump on board to make a quick buck.
A few days ago we saw one of these classic piracy names go up for auction at Namejet. The domain in question, Putlocker.com, enjoyed its heydays roughly a decade ago.
In 2011 the file-hosting service was added to Hollywood’s list of notorious pirate sites and subsequently featured in the U.S. Government’s notorious markets report. Not just once but two years in a row.
Putlocker wasn’t happy with these allegations and stressed that it took aggressive measures to take pirated content down. The owners eventually decided to let go of the name and in 2014 rebranded as Firedrive.
Even though Putlocker.com hasn’t been in use for years, there was plenty of interest in the domain at auction.
After a bidding war, a lucky buyer going by the name of “pantaloons” scooped up Putlocker.com. This person ended up paying $102,499 for the domain name, a massive sum for an ancient piracy relic. Who in their right mind would pay that much for a controversial domain and why?
At first, we thought it might be a pirate with deep pockets plotting to restore the old file-sharing juggernaut but there is absolutely no evidence that’s the case. On the contrary, a domain broker, who prefers to remain unnamed in this article, offered a more down-to-earth explanation.
“The domain putlocker.com is valuable because it receives a large amount of targeted type-in traffic,” the broker says.
“A vast majority of this traffic comes from people mistakingly typing putlocker.com into their browsers while searching for one of the 75 or so clones across other TLDs and ccTLDs,” he adds.
According to various estimates, Putlocker.com still has roughly 4,000 visitors per day. That isn’t a lot, but these are all people searching for something specific, which makes them more likely to click on advertising feeds.
Indeed, soon after Putlocker.com was auctioned off, it was monetized by a Zeroclick ads feed. This is basically a list of links with terms such as “Watch Movies Free” and “Free Full Movies” that may look rather appealing to confused pirates.
These ads point to other advertising pages that ultimately lead people to streaming services such as Crackle, Pluto TV, and SkyShowtime. There’s also a link to Chilimovie.com which looks like a pirate site, but isn’t. Instead, it tries to convert visitors into new customers for Amazon Prime Video.
These ad feeds have been abused by dubious and scammy services in the past but we didn’t see any of these on Putlocker.com when we checked.
It’s hard to tell how much revenue this advertising model delivers but it must take a while to recoup a $100k investment. According to our source, the buyer may have overpaid based on the ad-revenue potential alone.
Pirate Domains Have Wild Lives
Putlocker.com is not the only domain with a pirate history to be auctioned off recently. Moviesjoy.net was sold a few days ago for $15,800 and Primewire.ag, targeted in an MPA lawsuit last year, sold at auction for a few thousand dollars.
These domain names are not typically sold by the original owners. Instead, they end up at auction after the original registrants forgets or chooses not to renew them
The same happened to Thepiratebay.com which was actioned off for $35,150 two years ago and now points to an adult site. Around the same time, Piratebay.org brought in $50,000. The latter briefly promoted a mysterious film project and is currently redirecting to a non-operational proxy domain.