Porn Doesn't Suffer from a 'Piracy Problem', It Actively Relies Upon It

Free sites like PornHub and YouPorn depend entirely on content stolen from performers and sex workers. But can anything be done about it?
Tablet on bed showing porn
Photo by @charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

When Lucy, or UKCuteGirl, thinks of all the work people have stolen from her she gets angry. A particular video continues to haunt her. Lucy had been shooting all day with a porn studio and she liked the people she was working with, so when they asked her to do just one more scene, she said yes. Lucy ended up sucking a penis-shaped dildo that squirted out soapy white liquid. She couldn’t stop giggling. It felt silly giving a blow job to what was essentially a bubble blower for fake cum.


Everything seemed less comical when a fan messaged Lucy saying that they loved her new Pornhub upload. She freaked. The video wasn’t supposed to feature on anything but small subscription-based site Wank It Now. Watching it back, Lucy was horrified. She doesn’t do boy/girl material and the dildo looked far more realistic than she thought it would. Now people were assuming she was progressing onto more hardcore material. “My fans were sharing it around saying, ‘oh my God, Lucy’s doing proper porn now, she’s got cum dribbling down her face’,” Lucy tells me, over the phone. “I thought, ‘no, I’m really not.’ Now I get loads of messages asking me to do boy/girl stuff.”

After the video, Lucy changed all her levels – the scorecard explaining to porn production companies how far you'll go. Now she won’t touch sex toys, specifically fake cocks. Across her career as a performer, from camming to OnlyFans to porn shoots, Lucy has had hundreds of hours of footage stolen from her. Whether it’s a video of her showering, making out with women, or full frontal nudes of her legs spread, someone will have uploaded it onto the internet.

Lucy is not unlucky. This is not some glitch in an otherwise fair system. Almost every time you watch free porn, whether on a tube site or at the bottom of some obscure forum, it has been uploaded without the owners’ permission. This means that everyone involved, from the performer to the producers, won’t earn anything. Porn does not suffer from a piracy problem. Really, the industry as it is now couldn’t exist without piracy – it actively relies upon it.


How Pornhub Enables Doxing and Harassment

And the issue began with Fabian Thymann, the man who built a billion-dollar porn empire. In 2012, Fabian Thylmann became so rich he installed a Bond villain-style aquarium in his house large enough to warrant paying a diver to come in every week to clean its coral reef. Fabian’s cash injection came after his online-porn company Manwin (since renamed MindGeek) gained control of three of the top ten porn “tubes”. From Pornhub to YouPorn to RedTube, these YouTube knockoffs aggregate thousands of stolen pornographic videos and disseminate them online for free (Mindgeek, which owns and operates those three sites, says all their brands have a dedicated page to file take down requests, as well as using VDNA "fingerprinting" technology to detect the presence of any unauthorised material).

This investment might have earned Fabian $150 million, but not everyone did so well out of the rise of these websites. Users ripping porn from paid-for subscription sites and uploading them onto the tubes for free, left the value of porn studios’ work vastly diminished. Performers who used to make $1,500 an hour now get $500. Meanwhile, porn production companies have to hire a permanent member of staff to scrape the internet for their stolen videos. It recently emerged that Pornhub is promoting and profiting from Girls Do Porn, a company being sued by 22 women for allegedly coercing women into having sex on camera before spreading those videos on the internet. A spokesperson has since clarified that Pornhub has "a strict policy against non-consensual content, which violates our Terms of Service, and have various effective processes in place to rid it from our site." They also said that "Girls Do Porn does not pay Pornhub for advertising" and "all GDP logos have been removed from our site."


When Napster and Limewire offered a similar service to Fabian’s for the music industry – allowing users to upload stolen music for others to download – they were sued by the Recording Industry Association of America. But the porn studios didn’t have the same amount of financial backing or political connections to threaten MindGeek out of business so were not able to take action in 2012.

Now, sex workers operating on camming sites like LiveJasmin or subscription services like OnlyFans are having their content ripped and uploaded onto tube sites for free. When they try to take action against this, it often feels like they are screaming against a brick wall.

After Alessa Savage realised a threesome she shot for her OnlyFans page had been uploaded onto Pornhub without her permission, she felt really tired. Alessa knew there wasn’t much she could actually do to get the video back. “I didn’t even bother reporting it,” she tells me down the phone. “I just left it. Even if Pornhub took it down, there’s nothing you can do to stop the user re-uploading, you can’t steal that content back off them.”

Lucy has managed to get her work taken down off Pornhub, but says it’s an arduous process. “You have to prove you’re the owner of the video. Often people send them the original, unedited footage. If you can’t prove it, they won’t take it down.” According to Lucy, you have to nag sites like Pornhub several times before they listen. “They make it such a struggle to take it down because they want the content; they are always on the side of the person uploading it.”


“I spent money on travel, renting the location, hiring film cameras, photographers, lingerie, hair, nails, £400 STI tests. Someone would have paid £15.99 for a month's subscription to my OnlyFans account, and in ten minutes he would have downloaded it all, uploaded it – done." —performer Alessa Savage

Meanwhile, Elle Brooke, who found her content uploaded for free onto illegal forum The Fappening Blog, spends around 30 minutes everyday scrolling online to see if someone has ripped her work. “People have told me I’m on Pornhub. I must have a blonde doppelgänger because every time I search ‘Elle Brooke’ nothing comes up. But then they must have uploaded it under a different name so I can’t find it.”

Alessa’s stolen threesome video frustrated her from a financial point of view. “I spent money on travel, renting the location, hiring film cameras, photographers, lingerie, hair, nails, we had to get STI tested, which costs 400 quid a pop. We all put a lot of effort into it, getting everyone in the same place at one time, actually doing the shoot, editing the video – I’m not a professional, so it takes me ages to put something half decent together." Alessa uploaded the video to her OnlyFans where someone ripped it and uploaded it onto Pornhub. "He would have paid £15.99 for a month's subscription to my OnlyFans account, and in ten minutes he would have downloaded it all, uploaded it, done.”


From that highlighter she bought that picks up nicely on her cheekbones on camera, to the expensive acrylics nails, the money Alessa spent on her work is now helping to line someone else’s pockets. The more views Alessa’s video gets, the more money the anonymous uploader makes through advertising.

While that financial side irritates Alessa, the part that hurts her the most is the principle that some people think it is OK to steal from porn stars. “You wouldn’t have to explain why this was wrong if it were any other art form. If someone was stealing Hollywood movies or leaking Cardi B’s new album, they would instantly see why that is not OK. But, people just don't see it like that; they see porn as something they shouldn't have to pay for.”

When I emailed the porn tubes asking what they were doing to prevent piracy, RedTube didn’t reply after several requests for comment. Pornhub pointed out that it’s free to use their digital fingerprinting software which scans new uploads for potential matches for copyrighted material (however, this only works if the original content was fingerprinted in the first place). They also clarified that when it comes to flagging copyrighted content "a DMCA notice or content removal request on our content removal form is the only thing that is needed".

YouPorn referenced how piracy is against their terms of service and how they take quick action when a video has been taken without permission. XHamster say they are working on improving their AI to track down stolen uploads, but point out that it is difficult when they receive 7000 new videos a day. XHamster also recommends that performers embed digital watermarks to allow them to identify content and block it before it is uploaded.


Porn stars don’t make as much money as they used to, and that’s a direct result of a cultural expectation that porn should be free. Having work stolen means they have to work harder to make less. Their bodies are used to help rich men install giant fish tanks into their mansions.

When I asked Alessa what she would say to the person who uploaded her video illegally, she replied: “They should get out there and start shooting their own, because there is a market out there for everyone. Even if they are out there living in their mum's basement, someone is going to want to watch them wank, so just do it for yourself. Why are you being a little thief, it’s lame man, it’s lame.”


*An earlier version of this article stated that MindGeek owned the top ten tube sites, which is inaccurate. MindGeek owns three of the top ten tube sites.

*This article was amended on September 9, 2019, to include further comment from Pornhub regarding their Terms of Service.