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Battle Over Online Piracy Gets a Sheriff

London company Web Sheriff helps top artists – but does it go too far?

Andy Greene May 20, 2009
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Normally, the founders of the two biggest Van Morrison fan sites would have been delighted to be contacted by a representative of the reclusive rocker. But the letters they received last year weren’t good news: A London company called Web Sheriff, which had been hired by Morrison, demanded that photos, lyrics and other content be taken down. Within days, both sites ”“ and all Morrison-related video on YouTube ”“ had vanished from the Web.

Web Sheriff, which has a staff of 20 (mostly copyright attorneys and Internet experts), performs a wide range of anti-piracy services for acts including Thom Yorke, Antony and the Johnsons, the White Stripes, Depeche Mode and more than 20 other major acts or their labels. Monthly fees begin at $1,000 and extend up to $25,000, depending on the package of services.

Morrison’s manager, who goes by the single name Gigi, claims that the material hosted on the fan sites constituted an invasion of her client’s privacy. “It’s one thing to photograph an artist while they are at a public event,” she says. “It’s another to invade their private space in, say, a restaurant and then publish the resultant photograph on the net.” (Neither of the fans who ran the sites would comment for this article.)

But legal experts accuse Web Sheriff of bullying tactics that have no legal grounding. “The Web Sheriff is overreaching,” says veteran copyright attorney Megan Gray, who specialises in cases involving the internet. “You wouldn’t even be able to run a photo of Van Morrison with this article if he were right. Copyright holders know most fans won’t challenge their claims. It’s too expensive.”

Most artists hire Web Sheriff for less-controversial services. When Animal Collective’s new Merriweather Post Pavilion leaked online in December, Web Sheriff was able to scrub the internet of more than 10,000 links to the disc. “It’s virtually impossible to completely put an album back in the box after a leak,” says Web Sheriff founder John Giacobbi. “But more than 90 per cent of the links were taken down.”

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Over the past several years, pre-release online piracy has become such a problem that it was made a felony in the United States. When albums leak, artists lose everything from sales revenue to creative control over how their music is heard ”“ early leaks aren’t always mastered or sequenced the way the final album will be. (The major labels have staff who perform similar roles, though online-music experts say Web Sheriff’s methods are more sophisticated.)

Most of the sites that host links to pre-release music ”“ BitTorrent aggregators, YouTube, peer-to-peer clients, MP3 blogs and download sites like RapidShare and Megaupload ”“ will remove the links if asked. So Web Sheriff has developed technology to scour the internet for such links ”“ and developed relationships with some of the sites that host them. Sites that receive cease-and-desist letters almost always comply. “I’m not allowed to disclose which ones, but some Torrent sites give us access and allow us to pull content ourselves,” Giacobbi says.

Web Sheriff’s most aggressive policing was for Prince ”“ who hired the company in 2007 with the idea of disappearing entirely from the internet. Ben Margolin, a 37-year-old who has run the nonprofit site Prince.org since 1999, remembers when the first letter from Web Sheriff arrived, in 2007. “I got a list of several thousand images he wanted taken down,” Margolin says, “things like a photo of a guy with a Prince tattoo on his forearm.” Margolin and other fans formed an online organisation called Prince Fans United and secured the services of a pro-bono attorney. The bad press persuaded Prince and Web Sheriff to back down.

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Although Web Sheriff’s client base is growing rapidly, some internet-friendly artists insist that trying to control it is crazy. “I literally find this stunning,” says Jim Guerinot, manager of Nine Inch Nails, who have released music directly to fans online. “If fans want to post photos, that’s wonderful.”

How Web Sheriff Works

The company provides a range of Web-policing services. Here’s what it does for three of its clients:

Animal Collective The majority of Web Sheriff’s clients, like the Baltimore indie band, hire the company to police the internet for links to music ”“ particularly albums that are not out yet. In December, the band’s new Merriweather Post Pavilion hit the web a month early ”“ Web Sheriff was able to remove more than 10,000 links.

Van Morrison Last year, the reclusive singer hired Web Sheriff to crack down on fan sites ”“ but not for hosting music. The two biggest ”“ which contained photos, lyrics and other Van-related info ”“ disappeared shortly thereafter. Copyright experts say there’s no legal basis for demanding the sites remove most of their content.

Prince In 2007, Prince went even further ”“ attempting to scrub himself from the web entirely. Web Sheriff unsuccessfully threatened sites with legal action for hosting, among thousands of other images, a photo of a fan’s Prince tattoo. “Things got heated from fans, but we act on [clients’] instructions,” says Web Sheriff’s founder

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