Each year around the end of January, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) publishes its annual review of so-called ‘notorious markets’ known for their connections to intellectual property crime.
In common with previous years, the 2023 edition published Tuesday highlights “prominent and illustrative” examples of mainly online sites and services that either engage directly in piracy, facilitate it, or simply turn a blind eye to infringement while enjoying the benefits. The USTR’s report aims to motivate governments and various players in the private sector to take appropriate action, wherever that’s possible, to disrupt and limit infringement.
2023 Notorious Markets Review
The 2023 Review of Notorious Markets shows that for a persistent few, annual appearances on the list are now considered more likely than sudden absences. The Pirate Bay is present once again, and the same is true for streaming giant Fmovies and academic research repository Sci-Hub. Russia-based trio Rapidgator (file-hosting), RuTracker (torrents) and VK, the largest social media platform in Russia, also maintain their spots.
After an unexplained absence in 2021, YTS.mx reappeared in the report last year. As expected, the most-visited torrent site on the internet also appears in this year’s report.
USTR Highlights Positive Developments, Notable Absentees
Regular readers of the USTR’s reports will have already noted the absence of former torrent giant, RARBG. After being listed as a notorious market for the previous seven years, last May the site suddenly shut down, sending shockwaves through the piracy ecosystem.
Since it proved impossible for us to confirm the specific reasons behind the site’s closure, our best attempt at an explanation last September necessarily relied on circumstantial evidence. The USTR links to that article in its report but the specific reasons for RARBG’s demise remain elusive.
Nevertheless, RARBG’s place in the report has already been occupied by new entry, TorrentGalaxy, a popular torrent site that effortlessly handled additional users and sudden increases in traffic when RARBG unexpectedly disappeared last year. Reportedly hosted in Romania, TorrentGalaxy has cemented its position as one of the most-visited torrent sites in the world.
Other absentees this year include the Premier League-nominated iStreamtoWatch and LalaStreams, which fell following enforcement action by the U.S. government. The USTR also highlights significant enforcement action in 2023 against some of the largest overseas piracy platforms. They come with important caveats, however.
Major Piracy Platforms and the Resurrection Phenomenon
While mitigating the effects of enforcement action is nothing new for pirate sites, today’s ‘hydra response’ can happen at bewildering speed and scale. For some, resilience is already baked in and for those based in problematic jurisdictions, even a more leisurely response can prove effective.
In 2023, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment targeted sites operating under Cuevana3 branding that had featured in earlier notorious markets reports. As the USTR notes, the operation was an immediate success, albeit in much the same way earlier operations targeting Cuevana-branded sites had been too; initially devastating but ultimately temporary.
“Cuevana’s use of multiple domains has allowed variants of the site to remain operational. Despite successful enforcement efforts that enabled right holders to take control of 22 domain name variants in 2023, mirror sites were able to quickly re-emerge under new domains,” the USTR writes. (Officially nominated as Cuevana3.ch, others include go.cuevana3.news, cuevana3.pro, cuevana3.ma, cuevana3.media, and cuevana3.nu)
Mexico-based Pelisplus, a new addition to the 2023 list, is another streaming platform causing problems in Latin America. The USTR says the site services its own visitors but also supplies content to similar sites.
“Pelisplus offers a content management system library service — a database that provides access to pirated movies and television series elsewhere in exchange for payment of a fee or other compensation — and also streams its own catalog of pirated movies and television shows,” the USTR reports. (Nominated as pelisplus.icu. Related sites include pelisplushd.to, pelisplushd.lat, pelisplus.in, and pelisplus.ai)
After receiving a nomination from the MPA last October, the rapid growth of streaming site Vegamovies earns it a prominent newcomer spot in this year’s report. Operating from several domains, it’s claimed that Vegamovies receives almost 185 million visits per month, which could already mean it’s the most-visited site of its type in the world.
Since 96% of its visitors originate from India, Vegamovies has remarkable scope for expansion in international markets.
Vietnam Also Injects Life Into ‘Dead’ Sites
For similar reasons mentioned earlier, regarding Cuevana3, 2embed maintains its notorious status in 2023. The USTR describes 2embed as a “piracy-as-a-service” provider; it crawls pirate sites for infringing content and then supplies it to other platforms.
When 2embed inserts its own ads, content is supplied for free; when customers prefer their own ads, that comes at a price. When the MPA reached an agreement for 2embed to shut down, its response was less predictable.
“Despite successful enforcement action in July 2023 by right holders and anti-piracy trade associations to shut down 2embed.to, which was run from Vietnam, the site is now operating again using different domains,” the USTR notes. (Nominated as 2embed.me. Related sites include 2embed.cc and 2embed.org)
When the world’s largest anime piracy platform pulled an almost identical stunt around the same time last year, notorious market status was all but inevitable.
“Aniwatch, which reportedly became one of the most popular pirate streaming sites in the world this year, also is reportedly a rebrand of a previously popular site, zoro.to,” the USTR notes. “In July 2023, right holders and anti-piracy trade associations shut down zoro.to, which was run from Vietnam, and thereafter the site apparently was rebranded as aniwatch.to.”
The USTR notes that resurrections like these “highlight the importance of pursuing piracy site owners and operators, in addition to shutting down the websites, in order to target the root of infringing content and illegal conduct.”
Pirate IPTV in a State of Flux
After various enforcement measures paid off, IPTV platforms Chaloos, Forever IPTV, iStar Media, and Media Star, are absent from the 2023 report.
After being listed last year, Globe IPTV – historically one of the largest and longest-standing pirate providers – receives no mention in the report published yesterday. In its place is new entrant GenIPTV, one of the services currently being subjected to unconventional blocking measures at the hands of UK subscription broadcaster, Sky TV.
“GenIPTV is one of the largest IPTV providers in the world, reportedly operating through multiple affiliates to sell subscriptions for access to over 10,000 broadcast and streaming channels as well as a video library of over 52,000 copyright-protected titles,” the USTR notes. (Nominated as genip.tv)
Vietnam-based BestBuyIPTV remains on the list this year as does Shabakaty, an unlicensed IPTV service operated by EarthLink Telecommunications, the largest Internet service provider in Iraq. Spider, based in Amman, Jordan, keeps its notorious status due to its persistent sale of pre-loaded set-top boxes and unlicensed IPTV subscriptions.
After the MPA labeled it a priority target last October, IPTV software solution WHMCS Smarters now appears in the USTR’s full report.
“WHMCS Smarters is a company in India that sets customers up in the illegal IPTV business by building for them a customized ‘over the top’ (OTT) IPTV platform from scratch and providing end-to-end support,” the USTR notes.
“While WHMCS Smarters states that they do not sell infringing streams, channels, or other content or subscriptions, it does sell the software, tools, and services an individual would need to establish and operate his or her own ‘off the shelf’ illegal IPTV business.”
Music, Shadow Libraries, File-Hosting
Having previously been considered priority enforcement targets, stream-ripping platforms flvto.biz and 2conv.com, and fellow music piracy platforms MP3Juices and NewAlbumReleases, are absent from this year’s report. Instead, SSYoutube.com has burst onto the scene after being identified as the most popular YouTube-ripping platform in the world, pulling in an estimated 343 million visits per month.
On the file-hosting front, Krakenfiles (incorrectly listed in the report as Krankenfiles) and Savefrom are new additions to the notorious markets list. There’s no change for shadow libraries Sci-Hub and Libgen, but the USTR now links both platforms with relative newcomer, Annas-archive.org.
A copy of the USTR’s 2023 Review of Notorious Markets is available here (pdf). A list of highlighted sites/services, including those listed for counterfeiting, reads as follows:
– The Pirate Bay
– TorrentGalaxy (new)
– Krakenfiles (new)
– Savefrom (new)
Aliexpress (no longer listed)
– Baidu Wangpan
– WHMCS Smarters (new)
– Aniwatch (new)
– Cuevana3 (new)
– GenIPTV (new)
– Pelisplus (new)
– Streamtape (new)
– VegaMovies (new)
– DDoS-Guard (new)
– Squitter (new)
– NSW2U (new)
– SSYouTube (new)