In June 2023, WesternRus announced to customers with regret that it would have to suspend its piracy operation.
Given that WesternRus had profited handsomely from selling films – without bearing any costs of making them – what could possibly explain its sudden demise?
According to WesternRus, its profitability had been destroyed by … massive piracy!
WesternRus began supplying Russian cinemas with pirated films after the invasion of Ukraine, when U.S. distributors chose to withdraw from the Russian market. Although WesternRus was based in Kazakhstan, it carried out its illegal transactions into Russia online.
Through the messaging app Telegram, WesternRus accepted payments in exchange for access codes to online video files. Cinemas then charged admission – we don’t know how much – to stream the videos for Russian audiences. Since the pirated films had already been dubbed, WesternRus paid costs for neither production nor localization.
The access codes were valid on a temporary basis so that WesternRus could engage in dynamic pricing. From a single title, WesternRus typically made up to 100,000 rubles ($1,100) per theater, per week.
This highly lucrative criminal enterprise was put out of business by rival pirates. They included Red Head Sound, which claimed responsibility for dubbing films that WesternRus was selling.
Moreover, the very same Russian cinemas that WesternRus viewed as its customer base were re-pirating the films they acquired from WesternRus!
To re-pirate the films, the dubbing studio and cinemas captured the stolen streams with camcorders. Then they distributed online the secondhand, yet very passable, footage, decimating the value of WesternRus’s pirated goods.
WesternRus was buried. We’d like to dance on its grave, but we’ve seen piracy rings drive one another out of business before. Horribly, new criminal enterprises arise to replace the ones that die.
In January 2022, the piracy app Popcorn Time was laid to rest under a digital tombstone, which bore the abbreviation “R. I. P.” To explain the cause of death, a Google Trends graph, which was displayed on popcorn-time.tw, showed how precipitously visits had declined since the site’s birth in 2015.
As Vice pointed out, though, Popcorn Time didn’t truly die. Open-source apps like it are “unkillable” because they are so easily imitated. Popcorn Time existed before popcorn-time.tw, the site where it had allegedly “died,” and it would survive long after. Competing versions, one of which had just been updated, appeared to be thriving.
Similarly, the torrent site RARBG closed in May 2023. In a farewell address, owners of RARBG explained that revenues had not kept pace with increasing costs. As they wrote, “Inflation makes our daily expenses impossible to bare.”
Unperturbed by candid financial disclosures, we didn’t shudder at the typo (bare for bear). We shuddered at the explanation, which gave RARBG a false air of legitimacy.
Apparently, to the criminal enterprise’s principals, winding down was a carefully considered business decision! The faux apology sounded like garbage.
RARBG didn’t mention it, but in fact it was outlived by a copycat site at rargb.to – a domain easily mistaken for the original one, rarbg.to. According to TorrentFreak, the copycat site drew millions of visitors per month and its Google Search results frequently appeared above those of the original site.
Obviously, with Google’s assistance, the impostor diverted a great deal of money from RARBG. (And why, you may ask, is Google – a trillion-dollar company – still indexing criminal sites? Ah, my friend, that’s a tale for another time, a tale full of scandal and strife.)
It is weird to watch the pirate vs. pirate vs. pirate “competition.” But what’s sickening is that it is a fight over money that actually belongs to hard-working creatives, who make movies and television shows yet often struggle to earn a living.
Every year, piracy takes between 230,000 and 560,000 jobs and between $29.2 billion and $71 billion from the U.S. economy. So long as our entertainment industry faces the very real threat of widespread piracy, we can’t be satisfied with laughing at pirates putting each other out of business. (Well, maybe we can indulge in a little schadenfreude … during our free time.)
Instead, we use every criminal enterprise’s demise – however richly deserved – as a reminder that piracy must stop. Our creative economy depends on stemming the tide of online piracy – and we need your help to spread the word and demand more action!