Meet The Online Police

To some, like artists and record labels, John Giacobbi and his Web Sheriff company are godsends. To others, like those who upload new album releases to YouTube, Giacobbi and Web Sheriff are probably not on their Christmas list.

But one thing’s for sure: Giacobbi does his job, and he does it well.

Web Sheriff was the vehicle that kept unauthorized content off YouTube when Prince did his 21-day run at London’s The O2 arena. Each night, after the concert, audience members were uploading their camera-phone videos only to see them disappear by the next morning.

Maybe that seems harsh, but a perfectionist like Prince – with plenty of shows still on the books – wanted to keep the online quality high, or at least make sure people continued to see him live throughout the London residency. More importantly, as Giacobbi noted, the fans were being enticed to buy professional-looking concert DVDs on eBay and other sites to later find out they were just bootlegged footage shot on handheld cameras.

“[The bootleggers] probably worked all night to do it,” Giacobbi said.

That’s not the only time Web Sheriff has been used to protect tour content. The company’s clients have included Tina Turner, Van Morrison and Bryan Adams, and AEG hired Web Sheriff for the 50-date run of Michael Jackson shows at The O2 that never materialized.

And Web Sheriff cites a 99 percent takedown rate, much of it within 24 hours. The company takes credit for removing unauthorized versions of Morrison and Adele albums prior to the official launches. Morrison ended up having the highest-charting album of his career and Adele debuted at No. 1 in the U.K. and North America. Web Sheriff was also behind removing a bogus Morrison story alleging he was kicked out of two hotels in the same day.

And live music can benefit from Web Sheriff’s services, Giacobbi said.

“Lots of tours have physical security but very few have online security, which is arguably more important in the digital age,” he said. “These days a whole raft of unwanted Internet issues fall around any tour like flies and you need someone to swat them for you.”

That doesn’t mean Web Sheriff follows the Prince model exclusively.

“You’ve got Radiohead, who is laissez faire about what fans do online, and you have Prince, who’s very strict. We always try to promote the fan-friendly approach and most clients do take our advice.”

Bryan Adams is an example. He employed Web Sheriff to consolidate his videos onto a YouTube channel. That did mean removing “tens of thousands” of poor-quality bootleg video clips. “But, to avoid blowback, with Bryan’s permission, we appealed straight to the fans. We said, ‘We’re really sorry we took some of your videos down but Bryan has a new channel on YouTube. Thank you for your patience and hang with it,’ as it were.

“After a while, they forgot about the takedown and were more excited about the new channel. It’s up to 187 million views in a year and a half.”

Web Sheriff also encourages record labels, at the beginning of a launch cycle, to give fans two tracks for free. It’s a “double win” because it’s fan friendly and it promotes the album.

“In the old days, the RIAA would basically say, ‘Take this down or we’ll sue your ass.’ And that didn’t go down particularly well, especially when they started to make mistakes and threatened to sue 9-year-olds.”

Now, if the Web Sheriff finds unauthorized posting or streaming of content on a blog, the company will just post a message saying that it’s not the right thing to do and offer an alternative.

“’If you take it down, you can share it with all your friends, and Reddit has a special online promotion,’” Giacobbi said. “‘Here’s a widget, here’s YouTube, here’s Facebook.’ We’re not just running around beating people with a big stick because of their exuberance. If you show them respect, the vast majority will reciprocate.”