Wippit, the UK-based digital music service, has called on the music industry to boycott major British and international firms, accusing them of fuelling "illegal" P2P services with advertising dollars.
However, many of the companies concerned claimed their ads' appearance on P2P applications - in particular, eDonkey - was cock-up, not conspiracy, with "human error" to blame.
Wippit's boycott call takes in a number of well-known names, including financial organisations NatWest, First Direct, and Halifax; mobile phone networks Vodafone and O2; cable TV company ntl; airline KLM; car-maker Renault; and MSN subsidiaries Expedia and bCentral. It says all of them have been caught advertising their products and services on eDonkey.
That activity, said Wippit CEO Paul Myers, gives "financial oxygen" to what he alleged were "pirate services" and "copyright violators".
Addressing the music industry in an open letter, he said: "If you're supporting a company that is not supporting you, or they are supporting a business that aims to put you out of business by giving your property away for free, follow me by dumping them until they change their ways."
The Register sought comment from all of the firms Myers names. Alas, Renault UK, which has recently used popular beat combo Groove Armada's Shakin' That Ass to advertise the Megane, was not prepared to comment on the appearance of ads on a site where that song can almost certainly be downloaded for free.
Other companies on Wippit's list claimed to have been unaware that their advertising had appeared on eDonkey until we spoke to them. "We would never knowingly associate ourselves with a site that enabled music piracy," an ntl spokeswoman told us.
High Street bank NatWest, echoing HSBC's online offshoot First Direct, claimed that such a placement ran contrary to its online advertising policy. While the legal status of such sites and networks remains a "grey area", they will not advertise with them, a NatWest spokeswoman said. An investigation is underway to discover why that policy had not been followed in this case, she added.
Both banks claimed their respectively advertising agencies had admitted they had "mistakenly" failed to follow those instructions in the case of eDonkey.
"We never asked to be on that site," said a First Direct spokeswoman, "and were quite clear we don't want to be on those sorts of site because we don't think we should be supporting something that could be used for illegal behaviour."
Vodafone re-iterated that point. In light of Wippit's move, it said its online advertising agency had suspended campaigns running through the site aggregation contractor responsible for the eDonkey placement while it too investigated how the mobile phone network's advertisements had appeared on that site. The eDonkey placements appear to have come through 'low-cost, high-volume' ad slot aggregators who may have been overly zealous in their targetting.
Nat West and First Direct also pledged to ensure their ads were not running on the controversial site "as quickly as possible", but could not give a deadline for their removal at this time. Expedia.co.uk did not confirm it would pull the ads from eDonkey, though it promised "it will be taking the necessary course of action to ensure that this does not happen again".
Wippit's Myers remained unsatisfied with such responses: "If it's a cock-up, it's a big one," he said. "If I was responsible for spending other peoples' money, I'd be responsible. Luckily an idiot like me can recognise these big brand logos on a copyright infringing service."
Of course, P2P software development is legal, even if the actions of the code's users may not be. That judgement was reached by the US District Court in April 2003 and confirmed by the US Court of Appeals this summer.
That judgement was made on the basis that such apps have legitimate uses and users who don't share files for which they have no authorisation to distribute or enable the distribution. As such, anyone can advertise with them legitimately. However, it's telling that, of those firms on Wippit's list who were willing to comment on the matter, all of them expressed their regret and dissatisfaction with their association with eDonkey and its ilk.
Yet the association with eDonkey will have done them no harm in the eyes of the young consumers all these companies are trying to attract, usually by attempting to give their brand a little more edge. The eDonkey affair may prove to be simply an online advertising aggregator's error, but some observers may feel neither the buck nor the bucks stop there. ®