Hollywood goes to extremes to protect its interests worldwide. By now it’s public knowledge that MPAA-funded groups are lobbying at the highest political levels, but when it comes to law enforcement they have their ways of being heard too.
In the U.S. the MPAA was the outfit that tipped the authorities off on many of the ‘rogue’ sites that had their domain names seized in the last year. Similarly, in the U.K. the MPAA-funded group FACT carried out most of the investigative work in cases against the operators of the BitTorrent community FileSoup and the streaming site TV-Links.
Today we talk to Gavin “Tex” Warren, a private investigator who worked for the Hollywood backed group AFACT in Australia. While he mostly worked on offline piracy, his inside view allows us to learn more about how the anti-piracy agenda is sold to the outside world.
Warren became a private investigator in 2000, and prior to that he served as a detective in the Australian Federal Police for twelve years. From 2003 until 2008 he worked as an investigator, undercover operative handler and then lead investigator for AFACT. When AFACT moved their priorities from offline piracy to ISPs, they eventually let Warren go.
The Big Score
“Initially AFACT was called the Australasian Film and Video Security Office and was run out of Sydney by Mr Steve Howes,” Warren says, explaining how it all started for him in 2003. “The lead investigator here in Melbourne was another former AFP officer, Greg Hooper.”
“I had an undercover operative who worked for me (name withheld) that I shall refer to as “Short Round”. We were contracted to make purchases of DVDs and back then, VHS tapes of copyright infringing movies. In our first operation which lasted about six months, we had infiltrated a manufacturing “laboratory” and the dodgy sales team at the local trash and treasure market.”
Warren’s team then made so-called ‘trap purchases’ and all the evidence they gathered was then presented to the Victoria Police. The operation resulted in the execution of three simultaneous search warrants, netting about fifteen thousand exhibits, $30,000 cash and a dozen computer towers. It was a great success that was quickly communicated to the media.
“The press were informed and all was tied up in a neat bundle. Column inches were filled, sound bites were created and everyone was happy, except the pirates,” Warren recalls.
“This success ensured that Short Round and I had ongoing work. The AFVSO was subsumed by AFACT soon thereafter. Steve Howes was replaced by Neil Gane, a former British Hong Kong Police Inspector who had been working in Malaysia with the MPAA against piracy.”
“At this time, Short Round and I were trotted out to meet Neil and to show him our equipment and discuss tactics. Mr Gane gave the impression of being very committed to stopping the evil scourge of piracy and was far more media savvy than his predecessor.”
“He was adamant that we needed to boost our statistics to make the media sit up and take notice and that the large numbers would make it easier to get the local Police interested. This was especially difficult to do as local police had no jurisdiction over copyright infringing product and the AFP were desperately short on manpower. We were encouraged to find links to drugs and stolen goods wherever possible.”
“We discussed the formula for extrapolating the potential street value earnings of ‘laboratories’ and we were instructed to count all blank discs in our seizure figures as they were potential product. Mr Gane also explained that the increased loss approximation figures were derived from all forms of impacts on decreasing cinema patronage right through to the farmer who grows the corn for popping.”
Gane understood that the media was an essential tool towards AFACT’s goal of getting tougher copyright legislation in place. And for this purpose, it was a good idea to bend the truth a bit. The results of this recalculation are quite amazing.
“2002 impact estimates were $100 million to today’s figure of $1.36 billion in nine years…. That’s a lot of extrapolating,” Warren says.
Courting the Police
Aside from influencing lawmakers with creative statistics, Warren and his colleagues also had to court the police on a regular basis. AFACT worked with both local law enforcement and the attorney general’s office where they delivered evidence and information to, based on their own investigations.
“Funded solely by MPAA, AFACT lobbies hard for changes to Australian law and enhance the sexiness of their case by making vague references to links to terrorism. Sometimes not so vague. I was instructed to tell police officers that the profit margins were greater than dealing heroin. It was bizarre. A twisted logic that AFACT spewed out with monotonous regularity,” Warren says.
One of the examples Warren gives is that they assumed that all burners and DVD replicators would run 24/7, making these operations appear very lucrative.
“Each burner cranking out ten discs an hour, multiplied by ten dollars per disc is potentially a hundred dollars an hour, multiplied by number of burners by hours in a year gives a yearly potential…. Very pumped up statistics.”
When the local police were convinced about the to need to follow-up on the case, Warren delivered them all the evidence they would need on a silver platter.
“In my time at AFACT we developed relationships with various police officers (detectives) and would work our cases up to a stage where we could present them with enough information, intelligence and evidence that most of the work was done. This is called a ‘walk up start’.”
“Police on the other hand would sometimes find large quantities of copyright infringing material whilst executing warrants, eg: drug warrant executions would invariably turn up some dodgy DVDs and I would get a call to come and identify the product and prepare a brief of evidence for prosecution.”
“It was a matter of educating the police officers what to look for. In this vein, I would regularly deliver half day seminars to police on their training days. It was a good system and had the effect of increasing their prosecutions and my investigations statistics. Collaboration had such a dark overtone. Cooperation is my preferred term,” Warren says.
Like many other private investigators Warren is a former police detective. And although the statistics may have been pumped a little, Warren was always careful to act within the boundaries of the law when it comes to his investigative work.
“The PI license is relatively difficult to obtain and easy to lose, therefore we tend to shy away from any activity that would jeopardize our livelihood. The key to efficient and effective investigations is to know all aspects of the various legislations that cover things such as Surveillance Devices, hidden cameras etc. At no time did I authorize or condone the breaking of any laws or rules.”
“Undercover operations, to be used in evidence, need to be squeaky clean. The last thing any investigator needs is to have evidence thrown out of court because of the breach of legislation, or compromise by way of entrapment,” Warren told TorrentFreak.
Bye Bye PI
At the end of 2007 Warren had a meeting with Neil Gane, who just returned to AFACT after serving as the Australasian Operations Manager for the MPAA for a brief while. Gane told Warren that AFACT would be focusing more on ISPs and online piracy instead of the street work Warren did.
Warren was still welcome to submit a tender for piecemeal work at an hourly rate, instead of daily. However, he later learned that his partner and former friend, Short Round, had undercut him, and was working on an as-needed basis for AFACT.
This ended Warren’s ‘career’ in the anti-piracy business. In the years that followed he continued to monitor what AFACT was up to, and he still can’t help but crack a smile when he reads about the disastrous piracy statistics AFACT tells the media about. And so do we.