Publisher IP theft: an open letter to advertisers and agencies


Digital publishing industry body the AOP, has released an open letter to advertisers and advertising agencies calling for action on IP theft.

Below is the full text of the open letter calling for unity and action in the ad industry to safeguard data protection across the digital media landscape:

Sustaining a healthy digital media ecosystem means ensuring equal value for all participants.

While better recognition of consumers as data owners has driven vital changes in privacy regulation and cemented a consent-based online value exchange, failure to protect publisher data is still putting future stability at risk.

The rising drain on publisher assets

Understanding that programmatic buyers need media quality assurance, publishers have enabled data access for content verification vendors.

But as fading third-party cookie use has fuelled demand for alternative targeting methods such as contextual advertising, the tactics of some verification technologies are extending beyond their original – and legitimate – purpose.

By packing unseen extra tags into authorised in-header wrappers, or running user agents (bots) to crawl open published domains, unscrupulous vendors are collecting publisher meta data and article text to build contextual audience segments for their own commercial gain, without first gaining permission.

Theft of our IP

Nefarious first-party data extraction amounts to theft of publishers’ intellectual property (IP), with negative impacts extending across publishers, advertisers, and agencies.

For publishers, this action erodes and undermines their exclusive capacity to enrich user experiences and ad inventory using owned data.

Meanwhile, buyers face significant data validity concerns. There are no guarantees that data used to verify media and serve contextual ads to specific audience segments is licensed, or accurate.

Buyers need to ask themselves some tough questions around whether the data fuelling their ad campaigns is of sufficient quality, integrity, and legitimacy.

Moreover, they may also find themselves bearing more responsibility for data mishandling than they realise.

Some verification providers indicate that publisher IP is only collected at the buyer’s request, essentially attributing blame towards the advertisers themselves.

Taking the first steps to address an endemic problem 

This is undoubtedly an endemic problem that places the entire digital media space in jeopardy.

With their competitive advantage depleting, many publishers are struggling to secure crucial ad revenue; leaving them less able to support premium content environments where advertisers can reach desirable audiences, safely.

As part of its mission over the past two years to interrogate, evaluate and address this issue, the AOP has collaborated with the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), which has now released an updated version of its Brand Safety Certification, setting out clearer definitions around publisher data applications.

Effective from 1 January 2023, revised wording specifically differentiates between legitimate and illegitimate data use.

By removing previous grey areas, it gives publishers improved scope to ensure tools are being deployed for their declared purpose, rather than running unsanctioned IP collection.

This latest development represents sizeable and positive progress, but more action is urgently required.

As the unifying voice of online publishers, AOP is issuing a call for advertisers and agencies to join it in pushing towards the following goals:

1.  Help publishers act against bad actors: Buyers are in a unique position to influence verification intermediaries. As contract holders, they have an opportunity to demand valid proof that intermediaries have obtained official licenses before collating publisher IP, as well as the ability to decline partnerships with those unable to do so.

2. Engage in unified discussions: advertisers and agencies must take a seat around the consultation table. Participating in open discussions with TAG and bodies such as the AOP will enable them to better understand risks posed to every area of the ecosystem, and investigate mutually beneficial measures.

Data leakage is a very serious concern. As illustrated by a recent legal case brought by Getty Images against Stability AI, awareness of data scraping bots is growing; along with interest among digital media businesses in ensuring their IP is adequately controlled and licensed.

While no personal data is being transacted, the theft of publisher IP is a compliance issue and a breach of agreed standards.

More importantly, as first-party data is viewed as key among cookie replacements, context-based advertising demand will only increase.

A commitment that the whole industry is united in addressing these concerns will help delay – and ideally prevent – more radical, disruptive publisher action.

While we’re seeing some beacons of hope – for example, promising discussions continue with one vendor about how publishers can be properly compensated for the collection of their contextual data, under licensed agreement – these isolated acts of accountability are a mere drop in the ocean.

We are standing on the precipice of murkiness, which could herald more uncertainty and lawless data use.

The AOP feels there is still time to avoid this fate by coming together, which is why we are calling on the industry to step up.

At minimum, greater engagement in conversations with practitioners across the sector is paramount. More tangibly, buyers need to start using their power to protect and cultivate a transparent ecosystem for the future.

If they want to keep placing ads beside premium, trusted and high-quality online content, advertisers and agencies must start boycotting any vendors unable to demonstrate that the contextual data they use has been obtained fairly, with consent.