Q&A: Eleven questions for a warez site owner

Variations on a theme of "Dude, what the...?"

You need a copy of Adobe's Photoshop or maybe the latest version of CorelDraw? Or how about downloading Beowulf or a DVD rip of American Gangster? If you know where to go, they're all available for free, at rogue sites that link to pirated software and other content -- also known as "warez."

I recently interviewed a warez site operator to find out how he started the site, how he makes money, and how he justifies passing out illegal copies of practically everything under the sun.

Oh, right -- you want to know how to get to this site. That was my editor's only restriction: the guy's name and his site's name need to be kept secret.

Bass: Okay, first, the obvious question: What's your payoff for running the site?

Warez: Now it's not a lot, and I mostly keep it for the community. It makes about $20/day. But before Google's AdSense banned the site, it was making $150 to $200 per day. Those were the good times.

Bass: What was the inspiration for starting your site? And has the site done what you expected it to do?

Warez: I didn't start it. I bought it from a friend for $3000. It was making about $10 per day. After I optimized the ads, it jumped to $150, so I got my investment back in one month. It was a good deal.

Bass: In your Terms of Service, you say people coming to your site cannot, "upload, post or otherwise transmit any Content that infringes any patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright, rights of privacy or publicity, or other proprietary rights of any person or entity." Kind of ironic, no?

Warez: This is the standard TOS I guess. Anyway, we don't host any of the files on our servers. The files are hosted on sites like [free Web-hosting service sites].

Bass: Granted you're not hosting the files; but what would you do if someone hacked into your warez site or legitimate Web-based business and was able to drain off half your income--something that hundreds of software vendors might feel like you're doing to them?

Warez: Of course, no one would like that. However, the visitors have the choice of buying software--or getting it for free from warez sites. If they don't get it from my site they could easily get it elsewhere.

Bass: Is there any software you won't distribute via the site? If so, what's your criteria?

Warez: I don't write the posts from the site. Our members (more than 20,000) write the posts. I have a moderator that selects the best ones which appear on the front page. Since our site is visited by lots of teenagers we don't display anything that is adult related.

Bass: Members? It appears they're just registered users. Either way, I've heard the argument that you're innocent and simply a portal for others posting links to pirated software and movies. Do you really believe it?

And your claim that you're protecting kids from porn takes the high ground. What about the morality of your site being a conduit for stolen software and first-run, pirated movies?

Warez: I wouldn't call the site innocent, but it's not evil either. I say this because the content posted on our site is not produced by our members, and is present on lots of other sites, too.

Also, I believe people should be able to test a product before buying it. Warez sites offer this opportunity. I'm sure many visitors bought a software application or purchased a movie after getting it from a warez site.

Again, if they don't visit our site, they'll find another--so even if we close our site, it won't stop the problem. The problem is solved only if all sources of warez are eliminated.

Bass: Your IP address shows your site is headquartered in Moscow. But I did some digging and it looks as if you live in Romania. Either way, you're probably aware that every company seeing its product available on your site would like to string you up. Aren't you worried about prosecution, even from the Russian authorities?

Warez: To tell you the truth, we receive only about one copyright complaint per month; and I remove the post with the issue. The site isn't big enough for anyone to notice. The domain is registered by a Russian friend--I live in Romania, and the site is hosted in Germany.

Bass: And you don't think Romanian or German authorities might come after you--and shut down your legit businesses as well?

Warez: No, because they first have to ask for the site to be shut down. We haven't received such a request so far.

Bass: Your ads rotate. I've seen legit-looking companies pitching auto insurance; a company boasting Steve Case, Colin Powell, and Carly Fiorina on its board; and even IBM. How do you get mainstream companies to pay for ads? I mean, do they really know what you're offering on your site?

Warez: The ads are automatically fed by the network ads we use. I don't think the advertisers actually know where their ads are displayed.

Bass: Pushing aside the ethics, my guess is many people would visit warez sites like yours if they weren't worried about spyware, viruses, and other dangers. Do you do anything to keep your site's downloads free of malware?

Warez: No. But when a bad post is displayed on the site, the members comment on it almost instantly, so the next downloader will know the issue. When someone is posting infected stuff regularly, the members contact us and we warn the author.

Bass: So people posting are on their honor, so to speak. Yet some of the ads I've spotted--from Hotbar, Zango, Zwinky, and the Starware Toolbar--might be considered by some as risky. I asked Eric L. Howes [Director of Malware Research at Sunbelt Software, makers of CounterSpy, an antispyware application] for his take on the products in the ads.

He said, "Hotbar and Zango could be called 'spyware' and Zwinky, Consumer Incentive Rewards, and the Starware Toolbar are at worst 'potentially unwanted programs' [PUPs] that often wind up on PCs where they're not really wanted. Unfortunately, the author of the blog does nothing to warn visitors of the other programs piggybacking on the stuff he's plugging--not very cool."

"Also, some of the programs the author is foisting on users violates three of the site's Terms of Service prohibited activities. As this is a warez site, presumably, the site owner himself isn't not bound by the same ethical obligations as the users of the site." You don't display adult-related content, yet you're willing to expose those same teenagers and other visitors to the toolbars posted in the ads. Anything to say?

Warez: I can't control the content of the ads. That is the job of the ad provider.

This story, "Q&A: Eleven questions for a warez site owner" was originally published by PCWorld.

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