Content Protection Summit: Anti-Piracy Expert Provides ‘Secret Sauce’ on Jailing Pirates

Cracking down on piracy can be challenging for media and entertainment (M&E) companies, but it must be done to protect content and success is possible — even in China, according to Elisha Lawrence, assistant VP and general counsel for global anti-piracy and content security at the Philippine M&E network ABS-CBN International.

“I am notorious now for being the first person to get these pirates put in jail in China,” she said, speaking Dec. 6 at the Content Protection Summit in Los Angeles. The former prosecutor was pointing to the key role she played in cracking down on pirates who had been marketing Filstream-branded IPTV boxes containing content from her company and several other major studios.

During her presentation, “Across Borders: Getting the Guilty in Jail,” she provided a case study — what she called the “secret sauce” — on how the Philippines’ largest M&E conglomerate has been going after pirates, wherever they live and operate.

ABS-CBN is “basically the Disney of the Philippines,” she said, noting “we’ve got 33 TV stations” and TV studios, and “make more TV shows and movies than all the studios in the United States combined.” The company hired her because it had a major problem with piracy and asked her to help fix it.

The company distributes content in 190 countries via many platforms, and there was “piracy happening everywhere,” including via Facebook, Google, YouTube and private chat rooms, she said. But the company faced an especially bad piracy problem with the Filstream boxes that she said was “really biting into our sales” and its “bottom line.” She was getting about double the normal 300 or so email complaints from company’s sales teams all over the world about the boxes being sold in Florida.

As part of her strategy to fight piracy, she relies on a large budget and the assistance of lawyers and undercover investigators all over the world, which she said allow her to “be very agile” while fighting a global problem like this.

Undercover purchases of the IPTV boxes were made by her team in Florida and they saw that movies and programs on the devices included content from not only her company, but all the major studios, including Fox Sports and European soccer, she said, noting: “You could get it all” on the Filstream boxes, adding she went to some of the studios for assistance, but they were apparently busy with other issues.

The main pirate selling the boxes was “quite a marketing guru,” with numerous YouTube videos and a Facebook page, she said, adding he was reaching out directly to her company’s customers and dealers to do business with them. “He really had — to use an expression — chutzpah,” she said.

She used investigators in places including Florida and Hong Kong to help gather information on the box’s distributors and how money made from sales of the box was being funneled via a shell company. Distributors were arrested in U.S. cities including Chicago, Florida and L.A., and those arrested were told not to contact the Shenzhen, China factory programming the boxes, she said, noting “I didn’t want them to go underground.”

Despite success cracking down on the boxes in North America, “I knew that China was iffy,” even though she knew where the factory was located, she said. As part of the first step to deal with the factory, a Chinese notary went there with an undercover investigator to serve as a witness, she said, calling that a common step that’s required in China.

Although the pirates were sued civilly and criminally in Chicago and Florida, she said the suits were filed but not served initially because she wanted to see what could be achieved as part of the crackdown in China first.

A raid was conducted by Chinese police early this year, but — unlike in the U.S. — authorities there just initially detained people at the factory without arresting them … until she pulled some strings, she said. Four people wound up being arrested in China, including the two owners of the operation and two senior programmers, she said, adding two hearings were already held in China and those arrested were still in jail, waiting for a third hearing.

“This was a global I investigation. It took about eight weeks from beginning to end” — at least through the start of the trial stage, she said.

When fighting a major piracy organization like this, one needs to be passionate about the initiative and you can’t just rely on external investigators and lawyers to get things done, she went on to say. “The key here is to really never, never give up,” she said. Although she had heard in the past that you can’t get anything done to fight piracy in China, “that’s not true,” she noted, adding: “They really do want to help us,” but it’s important to “do your homework and have all your evidence and they will help; and you have to be a little bit pushy too.”

Lawrence is also looking to form a coalition in the M&E sector to “put our heads together” on cybercrime efforts, she told the summit.

Earlier antipiracy efforts by her included working with Dubai authorities to stop online piracy of the Mayweather-Pacquiao match last May and working in the Philippines to arrest a notorious pirate who was profiting through a subscription-based model servicing overseas workers.

The Content Protection Summit was produced by MESA and CDSA, presented by MediaSilo, and sponsored by Independent Security Evaluators, Aspera, the Digital Watermarking Alliance, Menlo Security, Microsoft Azure, NAGRA, NexGuard, Convergent Risks, HGST, PwC, Thinklogical, Avid, Militus Cybersecurity Solutions, Amazon Web Services and Bob Gold & Associates.