Merchants Of Doubt in Silicon Valley : What Every Musician Needs to Know About Ad Funded Piracy

History repeats itself as once again we see public relations spin covering up for big business. This time Silicon Valley appropriates the “Tobacco Playback” in it’s war against musicians and creators to cast doubt on the destruction caused by online piracy.

What follows is a true story.

For the uninitiated Merchants of Doubt is a 2010 book that explores the tactics and strategies of Big Tobacco that were used for the “deliberate obfuscation of the issues which had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.”

There are few things we can think of in the history of the United States that was more controversial and embattled than the war over tobacco policy and public health. In it’s conclusion, this long history resulted in the now non-controversial understanding of the simple truth that smoking cigarettes is a leading cause of various cancers. This clip from Mad Men is a subtle look back at that time.

Today, musicians and creators are faced with a similar situation. For over a decade, the decline of recording revenues has been the subject of such a controversy as spun by Silicon Valley interests in the name of “internet freedom”. However in reality the battle is really over “internet freedom to profit for advertising revenues” while exploiting the work of musicians and creators without compensation.

These illegally operating and infringing businesses are profiting from the illegal distribution of music online without having to pay for the cost of goods (the music). As we’ve detailed here these businesses are paid by internet ad networks and ad exchanges who are clients of major brands and Fortune 500 companies.

The creation of the so called “Tobacco Playbook” is credited to John Hill, the founder of the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton. In 1953 to counter early reports of the harm by cigarettes the firm created a full page statement titled “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” which began a long history of disinformation and manipulation to deceive the public and policy makers about the dangers of smoking and to also increase tobacco profits.

Among the claims made in “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” are these:

Although conducted by doctors of professional standing, these experiments are not regarded as conclusive in the field of cancer research. However, we do not believe that any serious medical research, even though its results are inconclusive should be disregarded or lightly dismissed.

     At the same time, we feel it is in the public interest to call attention to the fact that eminent doctors and research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.

     Distinguished authorities point out:

  1. That medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of lung cancer.
  2. That there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is.
  3. That there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.
  4. That statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous scientists.

     We accept an interest in people’s heath as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.

     We believe the products we make are not injurious to health.

     We always have and always will cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health.

Why does reading the above give us PTSD flashbacks to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Anti-Piracy “Best Practices Memo” from earlier this summer?

The chief tactic employed is not only to cast doubt upon what is the first and most obvious cause of the issue being discussed but also to give the appearance of being agreeable to the contrary. Let’s see if any of this sounds familiar as espoused by Silicon Valley’s free-culture advocates as possible reasons for the decade plus decline in sound recording revenues.

Distinguished academics point out:

  1. That research and studies of recent years indicate many possible causes of declining recording revenues.
  2. That there is no agreement among the academics regarding what the cause is.
  3. That there is no proof that filesharing and internet piracy is one of the causes.
  4. That statistics purporting to link declining recording revenues with content piracy could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous academics and researchers.

The effects of piracy have been studied thoroughly and the conclusions are pretty clear and common sense. Illegally free without consequence has a negative impact on the same product available legally for sale.

Michael Smith and Rahul Telang wrote Assessing the Academic Literature Regarding the Impact of Media Piracy on Sales, which looked at empirical (rather than theoretical) studies in academic (particularly peer-reviewed) journals and found that the vast majority of studies found evidence that piracy harms media sales.


A similar study, The Economics of Music File Sharing – A Literature Overview, by Peter Tschmuck, which was cited by the Swiss government in an official report, examined 22 independent, academic studies (i.e., not industry-funded) focused on music sales and found that 14 came to the conclusion that unauthorized downloads have a “negative or even highly negative” impact on recorded music sales.


Not to be outdone by the merchants of doubt there are also court documented shills that expand upon the Big Tobacco Playbook by employing logical fallacies and confusing the constitutional rights granted to individuals as a threat to freedom of speech.

The bottom line for musicians is to recognize the truth that there is a lot of money being made in the distribution of music on the internet. Unfortunately that money is not going to creators, it is going to illegally operating and infringing businesses supported by black box advertising networks. But don’t take our word for it, here’s a report from Digiday an Ad Tech trade publication owned by parent company The Economist.

Why is Ad Tech Still Funding Piracy?

According to AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley, it’s an easy problem to fix, but ad companies are attracted by the revenue torrent sites can generate for them. Kelley said his company refuses to serve ads to torrent sites and other sites facilitating the distribution of pirated content. It’s easy to do technically, he said, but others refuse to do it.

“We want everyone to technically stop their customers from advertising on these sites, but there’s a financial incentive to keep doing so,” he said. “Companies that aren’t taking a stand against this are making a lot of money.”

Somewhere, someone may still believe that cigarettes are healthy and do not cause cancer.  And somewhere, someone may still believe that the cause of the destruction to the careers of musicians and creators is not internet piracy.

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