The names of some of the top antipiracy companies--MediaDefender, Web Sheriff and MediaSentry--evoke the images of muscle-bound, caped crusaders who swoop in to rescue copyright content from masked Internet bandits.
It appears now that the kryptonite for some of these companies is hackers. Just more than a week ago, someone swiped 6,000 of MediaDefender's e-mails and published them on the Web.
In what has turned out to be an embarrassing revelation for the company, the correspondence shows that the firm employs controversial methods to fight piracy, such as honeypots, decoys and denial-of-service attacks.
But John Giacobbi, president of Web Sheriff, a British company that has worked to protect the music of such artists as Moby, The White Stripes and The Shins, said not everyone in the sector takes such a hard-line approach to file sharing.
"We're trying to be more civil," Giacobbi said. "We have good relationships with most of the file-sharing and blogging sites, and when we ask them to take down material, the vast majority of them respond straight away. In some cases, the sites give us access to their databases, and we remove content ourselves."
Movie studios and record labels hire Web Sheriff and other antipiracy companies to act as sort of bodyguards for digital content. Typically, they are asked to protect the entertainment industry's most valuable digital material: unreleased songs or films.
Giacobbi said a song from a popular artist leaks to the Web, on average, between two and four months before its release date. Journalists who receive early copies of a song to review are suspected of being the source of many leaks, according to Giacobbi.
Antipiracy firms patrol the Web looking for unauthorized copies of the music or movies they are hired to protect and must act fast when they do. Giacobbi's staff rushes to send a takedown notice to tracking sites like TorrentSpy and IsoHunt. These search engines don't host any copyright material but are often used by file sharers to track down pirated movies or songs they want.
Giacobbi's secret sauce is relying more on phone calls than automated systems to spit out takedown notices. The former music industry attorney said his company relies on relationship building more than technology.
"Most file sharing is done by highly enthusiastic fans," Giacobbi said. "We just (try) to educate them about the harm they might be committing. I don't want to appear as if I'm criticizing MediaDefender, but we try to use a much more tempered approach."
Gary Fung, IsoHunt's founder, calls Web Sheriff the white hat of antipiracy companies.
"Web Sheriff, in my book, are the good guys," Fung said. "What they do is send takedown notices for copyright owners, which is perfectly legitimate. This is far different from MediaDefender, which (is) using tactics that are probably illegal and for sure aren't really polite."
This doesn't mean that Web Sheriff is totally toothless when it comes to piracy. The company announced earlier this month that it is helping to launch lawsuits against YouTube, eBay and The Pirate Bay on behalf of rock star Prince. Giacobbi accuses each of the sites of promoting copyright violations.
Giacobbi acknowledges that all of his approaches have so far failed to convince the operators of The Pirate Bay to work with his company. He said he reserves a special dislike for that site.
"We have civilized relationships with everyone except The Pirate Bay," Giacobbi said. "It's estimated that they make about $75,000 a month from advertising. How come they are allowed to make money from copyright content, but the record labels can't? Well, they are going to face the music soon. They'll be taken down eventually."
Operators of The Pirate Bay could not be reached for comment.