IP-Echelon founder Adrian Leatherland and his firm’s headquarters in Melbourne. Photo: LinkedIN/Fairfax Media IP-Echelon has requested almost 10 million URLs to be removed on Google on behalf of its clients. Photo: Google Transparency Report
Adrian Leatherland may be the most fearsome pirate hunter in the world.
You’ve probably never heard of the 38-year-old Monash University computer science and maths graduate, or either of his companies – Australian-based IP-Echelon, and the R&D lab that develops its proprietary technology, IP88 Research.
That’s because in the seven years since he registered them with ASIC, Hollywood’s secret weapon in the fight against online piracy has not spoken to the media once, and has managed to fly under the radar – until now.
IP-Echelon, founded in 2008 by Leatherland, the sole shareholder, director and secretary, is what pirates like to call a “copyright troll” – and it has a reputation for being the best in the business.
Situated in a nondescript office on Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD (it has a second, US office right in the heart of Hollywood), the company’s proprietary software monitors piracy activity around the web from physical “listening stations” in more than 25 countries, trawling peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, as well as social media platforms, websites and online advertising platforms.
It then reports back to copyright owners which internet users’ IP addresses are pirating what, and where, as well as online locations where infringing content is hosted or listed.
With this information, rights holders can then authorise the sending of copyright infringement warning letters to internet service providers, which sometimes forward them on to their customers alleged of pirating. The information gathered by the company can also be used to send takedown requests to websites and search engines, demanding that the search engines delist pirate sites, or that the sites hosting the infringing content remove it.
One of IP-Echelon’s biggest clients is HBO, which recently contracted the firm to help track down pirates of Game of Thrones – the world’s most-pirated show – and send them warning letters asking them to stop illicitly downloading it.
But HBO isn’t its only high-profile client – the company’s client list includes some of the biggest entertainment studios in the world, including Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
To illustrate the importance of IP-Echelon to these big players, its automated software issued some 7.5 million URL takedown requests to Google on behalf of HBO alone.
Takedown requests – which Google says it complies with more than 99 per cent of the time – result in Google removing specific URLs from its search engine when they are identified as facilitating piracy of a rights-holder’s content.
Overall, IP-Echelon has requested almost 10 million URLs be removed from Google, and has made more takedown requests on behalf of HBO and Paramount than any other piracy-hunting company; it’s the second most-used company for takedown requests on behalf of Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures. Google ranks it 15th in terms of companies that issue takedown requests to it.
The pejorative term “copyright troll”, however, tends to apply when a company contacts individual pirates by mail (digital or snail mail) and asks them to cease pirating a studio’s content or, in some cases, pay compensation for copyright infringement to avoid being sued (which is what Voltage Pictures, the company behind the film Dallas Buyers Club, has attempted to do in the US)
Leatherland personally signed off on recent letters sent to alleged Game of Thrones pirates, telling them to stop pirating the HBO content.
However he told Fairfax Media that IP-Echelon was “not interested in the identity of users” itself, and does not profit from litigation or legal threats.
“We sometimes inform internet service providers (ISPs) that their network is being used inappropriately,” Mr Leatherland said, referring to his company sending them letters which then sometimes get forwarded to customers.
Mr Leatherland described his service as the “Nielsen of piracy”.
“Nielsen measures legal viewing and we measure illegal viewing.”
IP-Echelon’s ability to map trends using its expansive data sets, and its research focus on the psychological motivations behind piracy, are highly sought after by rights holders trying desperately to mitigate revenue losses from copyright infringement.
Given the high rate of piracy in Australia, it’s little wonder Leatherland has gone to efforts to keep a low profile. The very worst kind of pirate – one that seemingly takes pride in ripping stuff for free – is often only too keen to engage in retribution, however futile.
While Leatherland is eager to credit his team of “very smart people” – “several PhDs and other experts” – with developing the company’s proprietary technology, it’s clear IP-Echelon is his baby.
An expert in the field, who wished to remain anonymous, told Fairfax IP-Echelon was “the best outfit in that [piracy monitoring] game”.
Their own technology and algorithms were “far more sophisticated” and “forensically accurate” than others’, the source said.
“They are good at recognising emerging trends and good at recognising digital evidence of any sort in that field.
“These guys have a very good reputation but they are very discreet.”
Staff are made to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) upon leaving, and just two current employees have their jobs at IP-Echelon listed on LinkedIn – including Leatherland – though Fairfax understands there are upwards of 20 staff at the company.
As it has racked up high-profile clients over the years, the company has made a retreat of sorts through toning down the language on its website.
It was once busily drumming up business with the offer of a “free piracy analysis” and clearly advertised its role in drafting letters to send to alleged infringers, as well as packaging reports “to be used as evidence in court”.
In 2013 however – the same year Google’s transparency report lists IP-Echelon’s first takedown request for HBO – it replaced any mention of the word “piracy” on its website with phrases like “unauthorised distribution channels”, “content infringements” and “copyright entitlements”.
Archived versions of the site also show it employed public relations consultants and lawyers who specialise in “discovery subpoenas” and litigation.
Know more? Email us
Follow Digital Life on Twitter