Tamil Features

Trade Secrets: TamilRockers, Kollywood, And The Business of Piracy

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How an anonymous torrent site is taking on mighty producers

KE Gnanavel Raja’s impassioned speech against piracy, his petition to the Madras High Court, and the latter’s subsequent order restraining ISPs and other websites from unauthorised web-casting seem to have done little to deter TamilRockers – a site that routinely leaks pirated versions of new releases on the same day. Si 3 – which was briefly available on the site yesterday – has now been taken down, but the link to download the movie has cropped up elsewhere on the Internet.

Reviled by the movie industry, but adored by the their followers, TamilRockers continues to thrive – under different addresses and domains – but not without some colourful commentary on their social media page, and a hilariously skewed morality. For when Raghava Lawrence participated in the Jallikattu protests, the admins of TamilRockers were quite moved by his protests that they bent their rules. They would withhold the leak of Lawrence’s Sivalinga that is scheduled to release soon.

Just for a day.

Their justification for piracy is cinematic, too. Quite like Ayan‘s Suriya (who smuggled in pirated DVDs) reads a post on their Facebook page. Another draws inspiration from Vishwaroopam, while the best in the series of such posts (probably published soon after Raja’s outburst) makes a pious declaration: TamilRockers will not live-stream Singam 3 or other movies on social media.

They will, however, release the pirated version on their site.

Only on their site.

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KE Gnanavel Raja, who owns the production company Studio Green, is the latest victim. His Si-3 (the latest in the Singam franchise – featuring Suriya, Anushka Shetty and Shruti Haasan in the lead) – Raja learnt a few days ago, would fall prey to piracy. TamilRockers, in their usual flippant style, had made a Facebook post about live-streaming the movie on the day of its release. So, at a recent audio launch that the producer was a part of, he made a fiery speech. “The entire team has worked hard for two years,” he said, “while we are still awaiting financial clearance to release the movie, this site confidently says they will release the film at 11 am on the same day.” Raja also added that he would contest in the Tamil Film Producers’ Council elections if that would help. “Give me six months, we’ll take necessary action against them!”

Later that day, TamilRockers responded to Raja’s speech on their Facebook page.

And, it certainly wasn’t an apology.

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Digital piracy began as early as late 90s with Napster, which was widely regarded as the ‘godfather’ of peer-to-peer programmes with its free sharing of copyrighted (audio) material. While it was eventually forced to close after a lawsuit, quite a number of anti-piracy efforts were undertaken since then, but they did little to curb the practice. Even Kickass Torrents, that went offline for a brief while last year after the arrest of its owner, soon sprung back up again. Closer home, in the Tamil industry, actor R Parthiepan went after DVD vendors in 2014 following a tip-off. 25,000 DVDs of Kathai Thiraikkathai Vasanam Iyakkam – the actor’s latest release at the time – were seized in Chennai’s Burma Bazaar. 2014 also saw actor Vishal Krishna raiding cable TV operators in Karaikudi when he found out that Un Samayal Araiyil and Vadacurry were being played on a local channel. Both films had just been released in the theatres.

Two years later in 2016, Gnanavel Raja himself led an operation along with members of the Nadigar Sangam, and cracked down on vendors illegally supplying DVDs of his film 24, in Koyambedu, Chennai.

The vendors were a bus driver, and conductor.

GV Prakash’s 2016 release, Enaku Innoru Peru Irukku wasn’t spared either.

In Bollywood, Udta Punjab fell prey to piracy just two days before its release; the illegal copies of the film bore a print marking them for censorship-viewing. Udta Punjab – after a fair opening revenue of Rs 38.30 crores – did not do too well in theatres.

According to an India Today report, the Madras High Court blocked 830 websites last year following a petition from Balaji Motion Pictures – the producer of the Hindi superhero film, A Flying Jatt, who sought a ban on a ready-made list of sites. The HC didn’t stop at that, and went on to order the ISPs to ban other sites that might not be in the list, ‘but may indulge in the piracy of A Flying Jatt’. This order came in the wake of the Bombay HC’s directive to ISPs in late August last year, to not just block a site, but also to tell users why it has been blocked. The message on a blocked site later read that the mere act of visiting a blocked URL and viewing information hosted there is a punishable offense which would attract a jail-term of three years, and a fine of Rs 3 lakh.

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The law on video piracy in India is straightforward: All form of literary and artistic work is protected under the Copyright Act, 1957. In 2012, the Central Government added two Digital Rights Management (DRM) provisions. The main objective of this amendment was to curb digital piracy and to facilitate the membership of India in WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performers and Phonograms Treaty (WCTT). These amendments were incorporated in the Copyright Act as Sections 65A and 65B.

The Indian judiciary also adopted the concept of ‘John Doe Orders’, which are essentially “cease and desist” orders passed by a court against anonymous entities. Used mostly to protect copyright, the order will direct Internet Service Providers (ISPs), telecom operators, and other platforms to ensure that the film is not made available illegally online.

However, according to legal discussion forum Lawfarm, the inclusion of DRM provisions and the John Doe Orders have been effective only to an extent. While these provisions provide a platform to curb online piracy, ‘they tend to suffer from territorial limitations, as many servers are based abroad’. Also, interestingly, the law only prohibits downloading and uploading of unauthorised material and doesn’t state anything about file-sharing or live-streaming, making it perfectly legal to watch movies online. And so, while producers fight piracy on one hand, this ‘legality’ has also opened up other avenues for them. The Hindu reports that ‘sites like HeroTalkies, Tent Kottai, Lebara Play, Lyca TV and YuppTV offer packages of six to 10 Tamil films a month, on a monthly subscription of $8 to $10 – and all Tamil films, except those whose satellite rights are picked up by Sun TV, are now legally available for streaming outside of India, two weeks after their theatrical release’.

Notably though, the movies acquired by Sun TV and Star Vijay seem to evade the piracy net, with most of Star Vijay’s films not available online except on their Hotstar channel. What’s more, there seems to be an actual strategy that these production companies follow. Derek K Ryan, the digital marketing manager at Star Vijay, told Silverscreen that is it not easy to find illegal copies of their films on the Internet. “We have a comprehensive team [sic] in Bombay that works on removing unauthorized content online. The team is constantly monitoring with help from Digital Fingerprinting – a technology that allows content owners to track their content online – so, they are able to take it down immediately.”

Star Vijay is also in talks with Facebook to get unauthorised content off the site, Derek added.

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This little loophole in the law is probably what that makes websites like TamilRockers brazen enough to continue with their live-streaming. While the anti-piracy cell managed to arrest a few admins of the site in Coimbatore (in December last year), it did little to prevent piracy from happening again – for it is said that the site is connected to a global piracy network. Their domain names change frequently (tamilrockers.la, tamilrockers.ws, tamilrockers.be being a few), and their social media accounts don’t remain the same either. Currently, there are over four TamilRockers Twitter accounts, with the latest created on February 4, and quite a few Facebook pages.

A source also claims that a few members of TamilRockers are part of cinema groups in social media, and manage to get information on releases ahead of time. According to The Hindu report, the site made quite a bit of money in 2015 when they uploaded the Malayalam film Premam soon after its release. On investigation, the Kerala police’s crime branch found that a US-based server hosts the website and that an administrator of the website routinely uses a Sri Lankan IP address.

The website gained further notoriety when Rajinikanth’s Kabali was uploaded on the day of its release, despite its producer Kalaipuli S Thanu trying to pre-empt piracy of the film.

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Piracy laws in other countries aren’t exactly dissimilar. According to the new laws that are being proposed in the USA, anyone found guilty of streaming copyrighted content without permission 10 or more times within a six-month period could face up to five years in jail.

The existing Family Entertainment and Copyright Act 2005 states that, “any person who, without the authorization of the copyright owner, knowingly uses or attempts to use an audiovisual recording device to transmit or make a copy of a motion picture…from a performance of such work in a motion picture exhibition facility, shall..be imprisoned for not more than 3 years, fined under this title, or both.”

Meanwhile, a study conducted by Evisional and Motion Pictures Association (MPA) recently found that online piracy for movie content is huge in India. According to the study, Indians form the largest group of users who download Indian copyright content from torrent sites. Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore accounted for maximum illegal downloading. In another report by Ernst and Young (2008), the Indian film industry lost USD 959 (Rs 4,411 crores) million and 5, 71,896 jobs that year due to piracy. The report estimates the piracy rate in India at 60 percent.

According to journalist and cinema insider Sreedhar Pillai, a large number of individuals based in Bengaluru and parts of Tamil Nadu appear to be indulging in piracy using smartphones, camcorders and even e-projectors to record from theatres in small towns.

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When the law (and all else) fails, there’s always technology that could help make a difference, if not curb privacy entirely:

Coded anti-piracy (CAP) is an anti-copyright infringement technology which marks each film print of a motion picture with a distinguishing pattern of dots, used as a forensic identifier to identify the source of illegal copies. CAP coding is a multi-dot pattern that is printed in several frames of a film print of a theatrically exhibited motion picture. It is sometimes accompanied by text code printed on the edge of a motion picture print, outside the visible picture area. The dots are arranged in a unique pattern as identification of the particular print of a movie, and are added during manufacture. The marks are not present on the original film negative; they are produced either by physical imprint on the final film print or by post-processing a digitally distributed film. This enables codes to be customized on a per-copy basis so that they can be used to trace the print to the theaters that played that particular print and to trace any bootleg copies however they were made – be they telecined, cammed, or telesynced.

According to Myce.com, a technology and digital discussion forum, another key technology is Cinavia, an anti-piracy technology that relies on a unique type of watermarking that allows it to remain present in pirated movies despite re-recording, transcoding, compression, or other type of transfer. This means that camcordings of Cinavia-protected first-run movies, Blu-ray and DVDrips can be easily detected. Pirated movies protected by Cinavia work at first, but after a few minutes, playback is halted and a warning notice appears on the screen instead.

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What’s in it for them?

Revenue from advertisements that the pirate websites get are negligible, with the advertisers themselves belonging to the dark Internet. While torrent sites make modest ad revenue, Investopedia says that those sites that do make money own the content (unauthorised, of course) that brings in revenue. In such cases, the income is based on click-through rates and site visits. The site also quotes a 2011 study that ‘a really good BitTorrent plugging can generate up to $200 per day for a website, and a very small percent of users generated roughly 66 percent of content on such sites’. The study further found that the ‘advertising revenue for BitTorrents tends to be modest and, compared to hosting costs, often produces a net loss’.

Digital Citizen Alliance, which published a report on malware and ad revenues in piracy sites, found that one out of every three of the sites contained malware:

“While some torrent sites directly host malicious programs, most torrent publishers and malvertisers use ad and affiliate networks to deliver their exploits and malicious programs in exchange for payment,” said Elias Manousos, CEO of RiskIQ, in a statement. The study arrived at the $70 million figure by making a calculation based in part on the 4,865 sites receiving more than 1,000 or more copyright removal requests in a year in Google’s Transparency Report.

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The arrest by the anti-piracy cell in January this year did little to deter TamilRockers. The site remained dormant for a few weeks following the episode, and soon sprung back to life. Gnanavel Raja – speaking at the audio launch of Yeman – explained that those caught in the operation were content providers who just shot the content and supplied it to others working abroad. “It is a big nexus – there are people in Tamil Nadu, Bengaluru, Kerala, Pune, etc, who send the content abroad. For example, a guy from Madhya Pradesh was arrested during the release of Baahubali. He was working with IBM, earning around Rs 2.5 lakh per month.”

Speculations are still rife surrounding the identity of TamilRockers, who seem to bask in the relative anonymity. And the latest in the series of strange rumours is that the young director of Dhruvangal Pathinaaru – Karthick Naren – is running the piracy site. Naren, whose debut film was quite a lovely mystery in itself – about a young cop who seeks justice with a vengeance – remains unruffled. “People who believe that I’m an admin of TamilRockers are the same people who believe that February has 30 days,” reads his Facebook post from a few days ago, “I rest my case.”

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