How sites like MegaUpload make millions from pirated video

This post was also published on CNET and VentureBeat.

For the scope of this article, I am leaving all of the commentary on SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and such aside for others much more well-versed than I to discuss.

A lot of people have been asking me the same question lately: Just how do sites like MegaUpload--recently taken down by an international collection of law enforcement--make hundreds of millions of dollars a year and fund lottery-winner style lifestyles that include mansions and private jets?

It's actually pretty straightforward. These sites use the same techniques as legitimate Web sites: search, social media, ad networks, and online payment processors.

Sites that feature links to illegal videos optimize for the keyword "links," and users that seek such videos have learned to search for "links." Generally, providers of legal content are not trying to land in searches for links; they are trying to land in searches for the word "videos." So searching Google for a popular TV show such as NCIS followed by the words "free links" returns sites that feature links to pirated copies of the TV show.

Clicking on one of these Google links, such as, returns a well-designed Web page featuring advertising from the likes of American Express and Hertz via retargeting ad networks such as Chango.

The page also features links to the latest NCIS episodes that are illegally hosted on download sites. Each link has a rating so that visitors will know when a file is no longer available due to a DCMA takedown. As there are numerous links available on numerous download sites, there is generally always an illegal copy available for viewing. It's technically legal to link to illegally hosted copyrighted content, so these types of sites are seemingly doing nothing wrong.

Like many profit-oriented Web sites, clicking on one of these links actually takes you to a secondary page so that the site can generate an additional page view.

Clicking on a link sends the user to file-sharing sites such as that allow streaming video of hosted files, including retargeted ad networks ads from advertisers such as Virgin America.

After watching a set amount of video, users are incentivized to pay to watch more using their credit cards, processed by payment networks such as Skrill. You're also offered the option to earn points towards viewing videos by accepting "offers," such as a Netflix trial subscription.

If this all looks familiar and resembles so many media sites you come across, they've succeeded. That's the intention.