Many Internet users have probably heard of Megaupload, not least because the site was shut down by the FBI in early 2012. Megaupload was one of the first and largest one-click hosters (or “cyberlockers”). While Megaupload may be offline at the moment, there are still hundreds of such hosters. They are notorious for allegedly storing a lot of copyright infringing content uploaded by their users, and for being used for illegal file sharing (“piracy”).
One particular thing about many one-click hosters is that they operate so-called affiliate programmes for uploaders. These programmes financially reward users for either uploading popular content, or for converting free users into paying premium members. For example, some pay-per-download programmes paid up to $40 to an uploader when his file was downloaded one thousand times. Copyright owners have criticised these programmes for financing piracy; they argue that certain users make money from uploading files that they don’t have the right to share. With our research, we wanted to find out how much money uploaders of infringing content could make.
Doing so is not an easy task because most hosters don’t reveal how often a file was downloaded. Yet, users don’t usually find files directly on the hosters, but on external indexing sites (also known as streaming sites or direct download sites). A few indexing sites display how often a download link was clicked. We used public click data from three medium-sized and large sites to infer the number of downloads of infringing files. (There were almost no files on these sites that were legal to share.)
The distribution of uploader income was very skewed. On one French streaming site, considering only videos on one particular streaming hoster, the top four uploaders generated 30% of the total income and the top 50 uploaders generated 80% of the income. Most of the uploaders earned only a few cents per day—if they participated in the affiliate programmes at all.
On a German indexing site, we found that most new download links didn’t get many clicks later than one week after they had been posted. In other words, an uploader who wants to make money needs to keep uploading fresh files. We also saw that the income distribution per uploaded file was skewed. Most files got so few clicks that it wouldn’t make sense to upload them from a purely financial point of view.
The top uploader on one Belgian site earned around $113 per day, uploading 200 files and spending 8 hours online on an average day. To put this into context, the user declared he was from France, where his hourly income was only slightly above the legal minimum wage. From this point of view, the income may appear modest, but it might be more convenient to earn than other minimum-wage jobs. Furthermore, uploaders can make additional money by posting the same links on other sites and by earning a commission on sales of premium memberships, both of which are not reflected in our data for methodological reasons. While the three sites in our study were among the largest in their respective country, they aren’t representative for the whole file sharing ecosystem; other sites may potentially be more profit-driven than the ones we analysed.
Taken together, our results indicate that uploading files is not as profitable as one might think. Most uploaders make next to nothing—thus, money is probably not the main motivation for most of the uploaders. It is likely that affiliate programmes are an incentive only for the few highly prolific uploaders who can earn higher amounts. Yet, on one of the indexing sites (which appeared to be more community-driven), only 40% of the content would be lost if the 50 highest earning uploaders deleted all their files. For all the other movies etc., there was at least one alternative download link from a (probably more altruistic) non-top 50 uploader. We conclude that shutting down the affiliate programmes would have a limited impact on this site; they clearly aren’t the only reason why people upload infringing content.
The paper “Paying for Piracy? An Analysis of One-Click Hosters’ Controversial Reward Schemes” was published at RAID 2012. See also a recent article on Torrentfreak.