Tech by VICE

Sony Execs Argued Over Uploading ‘Fake Torrents’ to Fight Piracy

The entertainment giant had a clever plan to stop people from illegally downloading the second season of “Hannibal.”

by Adrianne Jeffries
Dec 12 2014, 7:32pm

​Image: ​NBC

​One easy takeaway from perusing leaked emails from Sony's TV and movie division is that the company, like the rest of the Hollywood establishment, absolutely loathes digital piracy and everything associated with it—so much so that a plan to circulate a fake version of a television show was praised for being "clever" but spiked because of a strict policy against using torrent sites.

"Personally, I love this… unfortunately the studio position is that we absolutely cannot post content (even promos) on torrent sites," Pamela Parker, a senior executive in the division responsible for international television content, wrote in an email that was leaked to the public after hackers ​attacked Sony Pictures Entertai​nment.

"The studio spends millions of dollars fighting piracy and it doesn't send a good message if we then start using those same pirate sites to promote our shows."

Furthermore, the Sony legal department was concerned that official use of torrent sites would complicate any lawsuits the industry might want to bring against them in the future.

"The second piece has something to do with the coordinated efforts with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] and some concern that doing anything could inhibit them in a future lawsuit going after the sites," Paula Askanas, executive vice president of communications for international television, said in another leaked email.

The issue came up back in March, just after the second season of the thriller series "Hannibal"—which Sony says is one of its most-pirated shows in Europe—had premiered in the US and was starting to show up on illegal filesharing sites.

The plan, which was championed by Polish marketing employee Magda Mastalerz, was to upload a 60-second "Hannibal"-themed anti-piracy ad to popular torrent sites disguised as the first episode. The promo was aimed at convincing people in Central Europe to stop downloading and watch the show legally on the Sony-owned channel AXN.

This would be something really unconventional

In an email with the subject line "fake torrents - Hannibal," Mastarlerz tried to convince her superiors to get over the stigma of using torrent sites:

From the legal point of view in many [Central European] countries the torrents sites itself are legal. Only sharing and downloading the illegal stuff there is not.

This project is to support anti-piracy strategy not against.

From my perspective this would be something really unconventional, something to be shared and presented in case studies presentations. Great story for be presented at the panel discussions.

Torrent sites are popular with pirates, but they are also used to circulate legal, non-pirated content. California-based BitTorrent, for example, has been working with artists like Diplo to get music released there.

Communications executive Askanas was among those supportive of the "fake torrents" plan. "If we could make this happen it would be a huge victory and one we could even replicate around the world," Askanas wrote.

However, Sony's lawyers and the executive vice president responsible for intellectual property quickly struck it down. The final decision: "no one is allowed to use these pirate sites as marketing tools," as Askanas wrote.

The decision may have been a largely kneejerk reaction, but it's hard to imagine the trick would have worked despite Mastarlerz's note that "the success of this project is more than 100% sure." A single TV episode in decent quality is going to be around 400 MB, while a 60-second promo is likely to be closer to 2 MB—something pirates are likely to pick up on right away.

Of course, Sony now has another reason to hate torrent sites: they're where hackers have been circulating the company's confidential data, pre-release films, and internal emails.

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