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It's not hard to find almost any movie for free on the Internet. But would you believe that many illegal pirate websites are actually getting advertising dollars from legitimate companies? Microsoft, Sony, AT&T, even Netflix.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports on one independent filmmaker's attempt to figure out why.
LAURA SYDELL: Ellen Seidler official released her film "And Then Came Lola" in May. It's a lesbian romantic comedy.
(Soundbite of film, "And Then Came Lola")
Unidentified Woman: Lola?
SYDELL: Even before the official release date, the movie started showing up on hundreds of websites that specialized in pirated films. That was frustrating enough to Seidler, then she noticed the ads.
Ms. ELLEN SEIDLER (Filmmaker, "And Then Came Lola"): The majority of these banner ads, at least on the sites that I was looking at, were from mainstream U.S. companies. You know, Sony, Netflix, Network Solutions.
SYDELL: Seidler had spent $250,000 of her own money making the film. She wasn't pleased.
Ms. SEIDLER: The bottom-line is...
SYDELL: Everybody was making money but...
Ms. SEIDLER: ...making money but us. Yeah. And that is very discouraging.
SYDELL: Seidler decided to alert some of the companies. She called Netflix but never heard back.
Steve Swasey, the company spokesperson who got her call says he forwarded it and somehow it didn't reach the right party. But Swasey says it is Netflix's policy that they don't advertise on sites with illegal content. The problem is they work with many ad agencies and sometimes things get through the cracks.
Mr. STEVE SWASEY (Media Relations, Netflix): There's a list of several hundred sites that we've worked on with the studios that we avoid, and our affiliate partners know that. So we really are, in this case, just a part of an overall technology hiccup that got some ads placed that shouldn't have. They will be removed.
SYDELL: Among those agencies that do placement on the Web is Google's Adsense, which placed many of the ads that Seidler found on pirate sites. She got to in touch with Google and was told that she had to fill out a form for every single website.
Ms. SEIDLER: They make it very, very difficult and set up a lot of roadblocks. And it, you know, you can't keep up with it.
SYDELL: Google says it is against their policy to advertise on sites with illegal content, but would not comment on air.
It is not illegal to put ads on those websites.
Another online ad firm, ContextWeb, says it's difficult to keep ads off pirate sites. Jay Sears is the general manager.
Mr. JAY SEARS (General Manager, ContextWeb): Some companies, like ours, have technology that can determine, wow, this page is about sports. Now we have an advertiser that wants to reach a user looking at a page about sports.
SYDELL: That explains why ads from Netflix might turn up on pirate movie sites. Sears says the Interactive Advertising Bureau has just released guidelines for its members.
Independent filmmaker Ellen Seidler isn't very sympathetic to the technology excuse.
Ms. SEIDLER: And especially with a company like Google that has so many resources, you can't tell me that they can't develop some sort of way through metadata or whatever it is they use to vet those sites more thoroughly.
SYDELL: Seidler knows that Google and other ad companies have no legal obligation to get their ads off those sites. But she's hoping that at least Google, with its unofficial model: Don't be evil, sees an ethical obligation to stop it.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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