Big outfits like Viacom may make the most noise about copyright violations, but porn sites are using tech to protect their property. Photos: Old armory home to new take on industry
Declan McCullaghFormer Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
SAN FRANCISCO--Lexi Love has thrown herself headlong into a four-hour shoot at Kink.com, an adult video company with a Web site that's pushing the envelope in both technology and taste.
Love, an experienced porn star who flew up from Los Angeles for one day earlier this week, is surrounded by a three-person video crew and computer-controlled mechanical devices that can't be adequately described in a family publication.
Soon, a video of Love will be extracted from the high-definition video camera's attached hard drive, edited, rearranged, converted to multiple formats, and made available on a Web site for anyone who pays a subscription fee of $30 a month. The nearly imperceptible clicks of a still camera's shutter--shoots are also photographed--are painstakingly removed during editing so they can't be heard on the soundtrack.
That, simply put, is Kink.com's business model, and it has propelled the company to a prominent position in the adult entertainment business. Revenue was reportedly $20 million last year, and the company recently made headlines for buying San Francisco's former National Guard Armory, a sprawling structure with a dank and dilapidated basement said to be perfect for filming the so-called fetish entertainment for which the company is known.
It's often said that adult entertainment companies were the first to figure out how to profitably sell content on the Internet, and that they have continually found new and inventive ways to take advantage of the interactive medium while titillating their audiences.
Now Kink.com is on the cutting edge of the fight against video piracy. While mainstream entertainment outlets like Viacom and NBC complain noisily about YouTube, Kink.com, with neither the resources nor the mainstream appeal of its giant counterparts, is in an even tougher fight: Protecting the content it produces that's continually copied and reposted on the dozens of Web sites that traffic in poached adult material.
"It's an uphill battle--it's never-ending," Kink.com founder Peter Acworth said about copyright infringement in an interview with CNET News.com. "That's one reason we're moving in a live-show direction."
Like other online publishers, Kink.com has had to puzzle out ways to deal with the perennial problem of copyright infringement on peer-to-peer networks and Usenet. Kink.com's solution is live shows. In some ways, it's is a throwback to a more analog era, back when the Grateful Dead encouraged taping and sharing of live concerts (while still charging admission). The band Phish follows the same model today by authorizing taping and Internet sharing for "non-commercial purposes."
Earlier this month, Kink.com began streaming live 1080i high-definition video--at a time when mainstream sites such as CNN.com offer jerky, blurry pre-edited clips at roughly one-tenth the resolution of high-def.
"I haven't actually seen live high-def streaming elsewhere," Acworth said.
Better than banking
Ackworth's office boasts an impressive collection of pornographic DVDs but otherwise could belong to any other high-tech entrepreneur. And that, despite what he produces, is essentially what he is.
A genteel Brit with degrees from Cambridge University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris, Acworth moved into the adult entertainment business while working toward a doctorate in finance at Columbia University. He came across a 1997 news article describing the money to be made through Internet porn and decided he'd rather be an entrepreneur than work in a bank for the rest of his life.
Kink.com now has around 70 employees and 10 Web sites, with three more (including "The Training of O" and "My First Time Bound") scheduled to be launched by mid-2007.
As Kink.com has grown, so has the porn sector. Some estimates place the U.S. share of the industry at as much as $20 billion, though $10 billion is more widely accepted. The market for porn internationally is up to five times as large. Adult mobile content generated $1.4 billion in sales worldwide last year and will balloon to $3.3 billion by 2011, according to Juniper Research.
It is an article of faith among the digerati that pornography drives advances in technology. The argument goes something like this: VHS bested Sony's rival Beta format because that's where skin flicks were widely available. The Super 8 camcorder became so popular because of its devotees among amateur and professional pornographers. At-home downloading of porn spurred the growth of broadband and online credit card processing.
If Kink.com's experience with its first live broadcast on March 17 is any indication, that rule of thumb still holds true today. Live broadcasts are hardly novel, of course. Webcam doyenne Jennifer Ringley pioneered the updated-every-few-minutes JenniCam more than a decade ago, and adult sites like Webcams.com and Sexcams101.com have taken Webcam salaciousness to its logical and mostly uninteresting conclusion. A Webcam stripper is even a main character in NBC's popular Heroes television show.
But most of those videos, like the tiny streams from CNN.com or FoxNews.com, are displayed at an embarrassingly grainy resolution of some 70,000 pixels. Although the audio is clear enough, miniscule onscreen windows can be painful to watch. High-definition content that's encoded in 1080i, on the other hand, has a resolution of 1 million to 2 million pixels, depending on what method of counting is used.
"I haven't actually seen live high-def streaming elsewhere."
--Peter Acworth, Kink.com founder
Kink.com's inaugural HDTV broadcast relied on an intricate and fragile chain of computer hardware, some 30 components in all. "It required some black magic," said Jeff Schnitzer, Kink.com's chief technology officer.
Three high-definition video feeds were mixed into streams that were piped to the Internet through Windows Media Server boxes and watched by about 300 people who could also join a live chatroom. About two-thirds selected the live 1080i stream, which required a 1 megabit-a-second link. Because of the complexity involved, the job required 11 Kink.com workers, including camera operators, technicians, Webmasters and two models, one of whom seemed to spend most of her time typing on a laptop from within a metal cage.
An important requirement is to minimize latency, the delay between when a customer types a request and the video result appears on their computer. The live shoot had a latency of less than 20 seconds, and the company is trying to find ways to reduce it even further. "If they're typing 'spank her harder' and it takes 30 seconds, that doesn't feel live," Schnitzer said. A second live broadcast is scheduled for next Friday.
Networking at the 'Porn Palace'
Creating and maintaining a network that can handle live high-definition video is no trivial task. Kink.com has a fiber link running from its main office--called the "Porn Palace"--to a data center operated by 365Main. Two 1-gigabit links connect the company's servers at the 365Main site, which can hold 50 terabytes of data, to the rest of the Internet.
Schnitzer, the CTO, says an upcoming project will create a duplicate data center in Amsterdam that has a mirrored copy of all the data. "In case the legal climate here were to ever change, we could flip a switch," he said.
Prosecution is a concern of any adult business, from movie theaters to strip clubs, but so far the U.S. Department of Justice has not launched the kind of aggressive Internet crackdown the industry feared when George W. Bush became president six years ago. Although one hardcore California video distributor, Extreme Associates, is facing obscenity charges, federal prosecutors have mostly spent their time targeting child pornography instead. The Child Online Protection Act remains in legal limbo.
The threat of obscenity prosecution "seems to have evaporated," said Kink.com founder Acworth.
Kerfuffle over National Guard armory
As fetish sites go, Kink.com is practically buttoned-down. It has strict rules of conduct and about 40 percent of its employees are female. In addition, the company offers benefits, including health, dental, vision and a 401K plan with employer matching. It proudly counts itself as part of San Francisco's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community and its employees send a float to the annual in the Nevada desert.
That float currently is stored in a corner of the massive drill court of what used to be the San Francisco National Guard Armory, which Kink.com quietly bought for $14.5 million last December. What looks like a Moorish castle in San Francisco's Mission District has been vacant for nearly 30 years, after neighborhood activists blocked efforts at the height of the dot-com bubble to turn the 200,000-square foot building into office spaces for start-ups. They also opposed plans to turn it into a telephone switching station. (Because it's on the National Register of Historic Places, it can't easily be razed.)
When Kink.com announced that it had bought the armory and planned to use its dank, decaying basements to film bondage scenes, even famously liberal San Francisco started to become squeamish. Neighborhood activists wrote opinion articles in the San Francisco Chronicle decrying "degrading images of men and women." Street protests took place. Mayor Gavin Newsom demanded public hearings on the matter.
After a brief public kerfuffle, however, not much changed. Acworth took pains to reassure skittish San Franciscans that there would be no garish signs on the outside of the building announcing Kink.com's presence, and promised to clean up the armory, which had grown filthy with disuse and is poorly lit at night.
Acworth has plans to outfit the armory with industrial-strength lighting gear (a 1200-amp lighting box has already arrived) so he can rent it out to Hollywood studios looking for a place in San Francisco to film. He envisions the top floor eventually becoming residential units, the second floor being used as Kink.com offices, and the basement remaining largely as-is and being used to film dungeon and boiler-room scenes for Kink.com sites.
By showing that adult videos can co-exist with mainstream movies, Acworth seems to be laying the groundwork for an infiltration of sorts. "I think it's only a matter of time before some tamer bondage appears on cable TV," he said. "Part of my goal, in addition to make money out of this, is to make kink thought of as OK."