An illustration of files downloading on a computer.

Inside the Underground Trade of Pirated OnlyFans Porn

Motherboard investigated the ways people download subscriber-only content in bulk and repost it for free or for profit around the internet.
17 June 2020, 2:18pm

In late February, rumors of a massive database of adult content stolen from OnlyFans subscription-only accounts spread through social media. At the time, both the people spreading it and the many models fearing the hundreds of gigabytes of material called it the "OnlyFans leak."

It wasn't a security breach of the OnlyFans platform, which hosts creators' content for subscribers who pay on average $5 a month per subscription. It wasn't a hack or a leak at all, but rather someone simply downloading and dumping stolen content from hundreds of models into a hosting service, and sharing the download link.

Taking content from OnlyFans accounts manually, by downloading videos one by one, would be laborious and time-consuming. But a user with some basic technical knowledge can automate this process and collect content by using a tool called a "scraper." This software churns through the OnlyFans site and downloads whatever videos and photos a user has access to.

Any subscriber could run one of these programs and locally download all of the content a model has behind a paywall, then re-host it on free sites, resell it, or in the worst cases, use it to dox and harass models.

A Motherboard investigation has uncovered an entire supply chain of people stealing sex workers' labor using scraping programs, without permission, in some cases by the hundreds of terabytes, and distributing it on other adult sites or selling scraping services through Discord.

Following the OnlyFans "leak," Motherboard spoke with several performers and owners of premium adult content platforms about the problem of scraping. They agreed that it's an issue, and that casual consumers of porn don't realize that some of the videos they watch on tube sites for free is actually content stolen from OnlyFans and other subscription sites.

HOW ONLYFANS SCRAPING WORKS

Motherboard has found a wide range of tools online that let people easily download and store OnlyFans content, whether the original creator likes it or not. Some users claim to be scraping huge volumes of content, which they say is then resold without disclosing that it originated from OnlyFans. Motherboard also gained access to Discord servers where administrators explicitly offer a paid service to scrape OnlyFan profiles.

"Some people own server farms that download terabytes of data every day from OF [OnlyFans]," a developer of one of the OnlyFans scrapers and who goes by the handle Digital Criminal told Motherboard in an email.

Some of these tools were Chrome browser extensions that give users the option to download content directly from the OnlyFans site. Others were Python scripts that automatically grab all of the content from creators that users are subscribed to. Another was a Windows program that did much the same thing. Motherboard used some of these tools verify that they successfully archive OnlyFans content to a user's hard-drive. Google removed an OnlyFans scraping Chrome extension when approached for comment by Motherboard, but others remain available.

Digital Criminal said they made their own OnlyFans scraper because they collect images, videos, and text from the internet. Motherboard previously covered how so-called data-hoarders trade and accumulate passwords, names, and other personal information from data breaches like any other sort of collectible. These differ slightly to archivists, who may preserve digital information that is of risk of disappearing, like writing or art. Digital Criminal said they also worked more on their own script when another tool made by someone else stopped working.

"It’s very disappointing that some people refuse to recognize our work as something valuable"

Digital Criminal said this first tool stopped working when OnlyFans required users to run Javascript in their browser to view content. "I believe [this] was the first step to protect their models from being scraped easily, but they ended up making the site easier to scrape since I found their API," they added.

But these tools are not only for people who save OnlyFans content for their personal use. Digital Criminal said they develop their script for others' benefit too, and pointed to an underground trade in OnlyFans material where people monetize the stolen content.

"Some people own adult websites that use my scripts to download and upload content," they said.

Another data collector who used the moniker DHRB told Motherboard in an online chat that they use another of Digital Criminal's scripts to download content from OnlyFans accounts when they are running promotions, meaning that a user can temporarily subscribe for free. In that small window, the script then grabs all the content it can. DHRB referred to the technique as "timed promotion sniping."

"We've fully scraped accounts that have thousands of videos. We don't compress anything either since we prefer quality over storage space. Literally everything gets scraped. Images, videos, audio and text," DHRB said.

DHRB described what appears to be a supply chain of OnlyFans content, with material being sold from one person to another, and one that original creators may be unaware that their content is ending up in.

"The data I scrape is resold to a few clients who either own adult websites that host pirated content or people who resell content on Discord. I only handle OnlyFans though," DHRB said. "It really is just going down a rabbit hole. One person sells to another, and then that person sells to another, and so on."

DHRB declined to name the adult sites that buy the content they scrape. "Those sites don't say they get content from me or my partner though. It's better that they claim it as their own so they can build trust with their user base," they said.

But the content isn't just being reposted on difficult-to-access forums or sites casual consumers haven't heard of; It's all over free tube sites like Pornhub, YouPorn, XVideos, and xHamster, easy to find using keyword searches of the subscription sites they're stolen from. These sites then monetize the scraped content with ads that appear next to the uploaded videos.

Pornhub did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for xHamster told Motherboard that while they monitor and sometimes ban keywords for searching abusive or non-consensual material (such as the "Iggy Azalea" or the "R. Kelly sex tapes", they said), moderating keywords that include other premium sites is more difficult, because performers sometimes upload subscription content to the site themselves to attract more subscribers.

Beyond adult sites, multiple people run their own Discord servers where material is traded, or in some cases, where they offer to scrape OnlyFans content for a fee. One administrator advertised scraping one account for $7, five accounts for $25, or 10 accounts for $50. This is often cheaper than a user would ordinarily pay to subscribe to an OnlyFans creator every month, and the buyer then gets to keep the videos and photos on their hard-drive, likely without the permission of the creator. The administrator takes payment via PayPal, Cash App, or Bitcoin, and uploads the scraped content onto the file sharing site Mega for customers to download.

Motherboard also found accounts on Reddit that advertise Mega folders allegedly containing content scraped from specific performers; one user offered a particular collection for $10. Bots in some of the Discord servers then automatically reshared new posts from some of these Reddit accounts. Reddit directed Motherboard to its user agreement, which states that it expects users to respect intellectual property and ban repeat copyright infringers. Copyright holders have to contact Reddit and file a takedown request to get it removed, first.

The Discord administrator also sells OnlyFans user accounts which come pre-loaded with credits that buyers can then use to purchase other content on the OnlyFans site, such as private videos with creators that are not on a creator's public feed. Judging by messages in the Discord, it appears either these are hacked OnlyFans accounts or the administrator is loading them with credits via stolen payment information.

Digital Criminal said they believe these Discord administrators are using the script they created, as the resulting folder structure of scraped material is the same.

WHAT IT DOES TO PERFORMERS

Last year, professional dominatrix Mistress Harley discovered over 500 items she'd posted for sale for about $10 each had been reposted in full to a site dedicated to reposting scraped adult content. She originally sold the videos on ManyVids, a site where performers can sell individual clips.

"Many pirates will subscribe for one month and then rip all the content they can find, in some cases issuing a credit card fraud chargeback for the one month that they subscribed for in order to steal all your content," Harley told Motherboard. "If you know that people would rather steal from you than pay for your content and encourage you to keep making more content, it does reduce the work I'm willing to put into content."

"Stolen content reposted on free tube sites usually makes your content less desirable and forces you to continuously step your game up to satisfy your clientele and that can likely lead to a common 'burnout' a lot faster," Romi Chase told Motherboard. "Other than that, it’s just completely wrong especially that many times because of the free porn, men seem to see little to no value in our work."

Despite looking effortless in the finished product, it can take six to seven hours to film a full-length video, Chase said—time spent planning, prepping, filming and editing.

"It’s very disappointing that some people refuse to recognize our work as something valuable while in fact we provide a type of service just like any other worker," she said.

Chase said she believes OnlyFans is doing a good job of protecting creators by requiring users to agree not to repost content viewed or purchased on the platform as part of its terms of service, offering watermarking services to trace stolen content, and not allowing subscribers to download directly from within the platform.

Romi Rain, another performer who sells content on subscription sites, said that even with rampant content theft (she found a video ripped from her OnlyFans reposted for free to Pornhub as we were talking) premium sites have been a huge improvement over the centralized studio system.

"Performers have more control over their content than ever and DEFINITELY make more money from it," Rain said. "Ironically the pandemic really spawned confidence in the content revolution in porn. The safety net of knowing you wouldn’t immediately go broke if you spoke out about something or stopped shooting five scenes a week with 12 hour days for a surprisingly low fee, has been everything."

"There’s a social bias against sex workers that’s made this more permissable"

On a technical level, OnlyFans is not stopping or tangibly slowing down scraping, however. Clearly the scraping tools work reliably enough for people to use them at scale.

Larger sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn aggressively try to stamp out scraping with both technical and legal measures, but making any site invulnerable to scraping is difficult. A spokesperson for OnlyFans did not answer specific questions on what technical anti-scraping measures it takes, but the spokesperson told Motherboard that the platform has a dedicated anti-piracy team that issues DMCA takedowns on behalf of its creators.

"This procedure is inclusive of all required notices to move any infringement up to litigation if target websites refuse to comply. OnlyFans also notifies the offending domain registrars and hosting services as well as reporting to all major search engines," the spokesperson said. "With a duty to help battle against illegal piracy, OnlyFans is firmly in the fight to protect user content. Takedown success rates this year have been over 75 percent across offending image hosting sites, torrent providers, and cyber lockers."

OnlyFans isn't the only platform with a content scraping problem, and it's also not the only platform claiming it has robust anti-piracy policies in place. Tube sites also have terms of service clauses that forbid users to upload content they don't own, but stolen and copyrighted content on those sites has been a widespread problem on those platforms for as long as they've existed, and often put the responsibility of getting content removed on the original content creator.

But with OnlyFans' sudden rise in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, it's become an even more lucrative target for content thieves who get around those policies using scraping tools.

Other platforms Motherboard talked to are also grappling with how to prevent theft.

Dominic Ford, founder and CEO of premium adult content site JustForFans, said his platform uses a two-pronged approach to piracy. Models can report piracy to his anti-piracy company Porn Guardian, which works to get content removed from stolen sites and collects legal damages. Just For Fans also uses proprietary fingerprinting technology, which Ford says is embedded in content to identify who is streaming videos.

"If that video then gets uploaded somewhere else, we can identify who on our site was the original pirate. We can then shut them down and help our model pursue them legally if they so choose," Ford said.

Bella French, founder and CEO of ManyVids, said that her platform employs a team to handle theft and fraud, and also uses a combination of third-party anti-piracy companies to automatically identify and remove stolen content, as well as using unique stream links for each user, generated once the user’s permission to view models' content is validated.

But French also acknowledges that the problem of theft is as much an issue with sex worker stigma as it is technological.

"We are making every effort available to us at ManyVids to do what we can to protect the content creators and minimize the risk of piracy but I don’t think we can rely on technology as the panacea in this case," French said. There must be a "sea change," she said, in how people perceive the work of models, and how they consume and pay for their porn.

"This is an industry filled with hard-working people that need to generate income to be able to survive and ideally thrive," she said. "It’s a message we must get across and the entire industry must come together on this if we stand a chance of removing the stain of piracy from our industry for good."

At another premium content platform, FanCentro, vice president Kat Revenga told Motherboard that content theft is one of the biggest challenges creators face.

"There’s a social bias against sex workers that’s made this more permissable," Revenga said. "Those stealing the content feel that it’s their right to take it, that the creators deserve the violation by virtue of the work they do."

When creators alert them of content that's been stolen, FanCentro investigates the claim and helps them get it taken down. Following the OnlyFans "leak," the platform offered anyone affected who signed up for FanCentro free DMCA protection.

"Platforms, especially ones whose success is built on the work of sex workers need to step up," Revenga said.

WHY THE ONLYFANS SCRAPERS DO IT

OnlyFans subscriptions range from $4.99 to $49.99 a month—on average, they cost less than a streaming video service like Netflix or Spotify—but some people still look for ways to get that content for free, downloaded from sites where thieves post content for sale or free.

Motherboard asked Digital Criminal whether they've considered content theft from the models' perspectives.

"I'm going to be truthful and say while I do understand where they're coming from, I also like keeping the content I paid for and many others do too. This is the most common justification for the script," they said.

"[Content scraper tools] are always going to be around, people are going to record/download your content, send it to their friends, or just leak it on the internet just to spite you. The best thing you can do is to get DMCA protection to guard your content," Digital Criminal said.

One of the people doing the scraping Motherboard spoke to blames the models for this outcome—not the thieves.

“Before you decide to put your face on the adult side of the internet where your main audience is lonely men, you’ll need to consider the fact that people are actively scraping your content to build a database of faces so they can cross-reference images on other social media sites," they said.

Many adult sites, including OnlyFans, allow for models to set up geo-blocking to prevent people they know in real life within a certain region finding their content. Once it's scrapped and reposted or resold elsewhere, however, that protection goes away. Anyone can see a video, and once it goes viral, there's no telling where it will end up online. The repercussions of adult content going viral within a model's community can be deeply damaging and in the worst cases, deadly.

But the biggest concern creators have when their content is stolen is still financial. As platforms like OnlyFans change their policies to cut their income even more, performers have to work even harder to make a living that outpaces the theft. Until consumers value sex workers' labor as having value, the demand for free content will continue.

"When you steal or view stolen content, you’re literally taking away someone’s income," Revenga said. "Their ability to pay rent, buy groceries or pay for education... Influencers depend on platforms to keep their content safe, and we need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent being part of the problem."

"In general, piracy affects models very directly. Models make their money directly from consumers, and conversely, piracy is directly stealing from models," Ford said. "It was bad enough when studios suffered, but pirates think studios are all-powerful and wealthy and wouldn’t feel it. This wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. And it’s even worse with stealing fan content, because users know this is money coming directly out of the hands of models. That makes this crime more cruel and personal."

This article originally appeared on VICE US.