USC to brands advertising on pirate sites: We gon' find you.

Here's something to chew on. Digital Music News reports that USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab is currently conducting a study to find out, hopefully once and for all, how much money from advertising is providing support for the likes of pirate bay and other illegal content sites.

If you're reading this and work in advertising on a major brand, there's a good chance that you, dear reader are unwittingly helping line the pockets of very few people who are hell-bent on exploiting artists, musicians and movie makers all in the so-called name of Free Culture. And if you work in media placement then you may be wittingly doing so.

The Trichordist's David Lowery and Music Tech Policy's Chris Castle have been calling for this to happen for a while and in some cases taking matters into their own hands. Lowery's name and shame crusade, in which he calls out brands like American Express for having their ads on these sites has resulted in, well...vague promises to look into the matter for the most part. So much for big brand transparency.

Chris Castle calls the practice "brand-supported piracy." If you want to get granular, he breaks it down efficiently in this Music Tech Policy post.

But while both Lowery and Castle have so far been unrelenting in their cries for fair and ethical treatment of artists, Castle writes in his post that collecting "...screen shots are so important–when provided a screen capture of their ad on a pirate network, the brand cannot deny knowledge." You need proof in order to name and shame. So they go for the tangible.

Problem with this is, right now a lot of brands are still being allowed to hide under the "we don't know where our ads end up on the big old internet" excuse. And to a certain extent this might true. Ads rotate in and out under a complex algorithm that only google understands. Depending on which of these illicit sites you visit, you may not see ads for American Express, Mcdonalds, BMW, or Netlflix every time, but ads more along the line of the mail order brides variety. In other instances though, the results are pretty crystal clear. Proof is proof, even if its front end.

Another way of looking at it is this. At this risk of being too off putting for a Saturday morning would Mcdonald's be placing ads in the back of BDSM monthly next to the "full sensual massage from a submissive TS" ads? Of course not. Yet they're essentially doing so online by allowing their ads to go wherever. There are big differences between Yahoo and a torrent site. And if brands are so completely ignorant of the way apps like google AdSense works as they claim to be, then why are they using them in the first place? More importantly, why should they skirt responsibility by pleading ignorance?

The Annenberg study will be an interesting one. According to marketing site The Drum The USC Annenberg Advertising Transparency Report will be a monthly way of tracking what's really going on behind the scenes. More than just screen captures, it sounds like a name and shame on steroids, with real time stats to boot. The all important back end proof, to amplify Lowery's and Castle's front end efforts.

The study is being spearheaded by Jonathan Taplin who is not only the director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, but the producer behind Mean Streets. It is further being supported by IBM, Cisco, Horizon, Warner Brothers and Orange.

Note that google is not part of this funding. Wonder why?

Now I can already hear the argument that any study funded in part by Warner Brothers will be biased.
But that's a dumb argument to make with a study that is essentially doing nothing more than following a paper trail. And anyway, it's not the musicians or music companies or even the owners of the pirate sites that should be squaring up to defend themselves in this fight.

This time, the focus is in a much more damning place: On the brands.