Anchor, a Spotify-owned company, is addressing the copycat podcast problem that’s roiled the industry for the past month. In an interview with The Verge, Mike Mignano, Anchor’s co-founder and head of podcast mission at Spotify, says the company is recalibrating its automated copycat detection system, implementing additional rules and checks on people who want to monetize their show, and making it easier for creators to report copycat shows when all else fails.
Since August, publications like PodNews and Digiday have pointed out that Anchor has allowed users to upload rip-offs of legitimate, popular shows. People have found copycats of Serial, Nice White Parents, and The Ezra Klein Show, among others. Seemingly, Anchor’s seamless podcast creation and distribution platform, coupled with its automated ad insertion tool, is being used for malicious purposes.
Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini tweeted screenshots of copycat Call Her Daddy shows, asking Anchor to return her calls. Aaron Mahnke, host of multiple popular iHeart shows, tweeted last week that his new show, American Shadows, was being copied and distributed through Anchor, too. “We spent money, time, and energy building something new,” he wrote. “And 3 weeks in, someone else is ranking & profiting from it.”
Hey @anchor mind not letting people rip off our pods along with thousands of others so fake accounts can collect ad dollars from you? Also if someone could call us back that’d be great. pic.twitter.com/s4aBPRuqiv
— Erika K Nardini (@EKANardini) August 19, 2020
These Anchor shows, as the legitimate creators point out, are completely unaffiliated with the real podcasts, yet they seem to be distributing the same audio content and potentially making money off the original creators’ work. Mignano says the copycats are an unexpected consequence of fast growth and novel attack methods.
The copycats, Mignano says, found a workaround in Anchor’s detection system. “This is definitely a new type of attack for Anchor,” he says. The people who uploaded these copycat shows downloaded the audio from another source, manually reuploaded it to Anchor, and filled in the metadata, essentially making it appear to be a new podcast.
This manual process, he says, makes uploading copycat shows more time-intensive and therefore less appealing and only achievable on a small scale. He says the company found “a few dozen” examples out of the more than 650,000 shows uploaded to Anchor this year. (In contrast, people can also upload shows more automatically by pasting an RSS feed link into Anchor, but the company would seemingly detect if someone tried to upload a popular show’s feed and pass it off as their own.)
“The good news is that so many creators are using Anchor, and that growth has been far more than I think we projected, which is great, but I think the downside in this case is that, with any rapidly growing platform, that has brought on some growing pains and we need to do a better job of anticipating things like this,” he says. “We’re working right now to ensure that our copycat detection and creator outreach continues to improve to keep pace.”
Alright, time to talk about @anchor.
Anchor is a podcast platform that allows people to record and upload audio from their device to a personal RSS feed (the backbone of podcast feeds). Cool, right?
There’s just one problem: they’re not policing what users upload. /1
— Aaron Mahnke (@amahnke) September 4, 2020
Creators are especially worked up over this attack, however, because Anchor, unlike other podcast apps, allows creators to automatically monetize their show, meaning Anchor inserts ads and pays them based on the number of people who listen. It’s possible copycat shows could piggyback off a reputable show’s name and production quality to cash out. Mignano says Anchor didn’t pay any of the copycats.
“Once it was alerted that these podcasts even existed, and they went around our safeguards to even get the podcast created, we took them down immediately,” he says.
As part of the response, he says the Anchor team is working to make sure reuploaded shows wouldn’t have even received monetization approval in the first place. “Given that this is a new type of attack, we’re doubling down on approvals for new shows that want to monetize,” he says. “Some of these new policies have already been implemented and some of them will come soon.”
While Spotify has made its name in podcasting with exclusive deals, Anchor’s system is set up to share shows across podcasting platforms. That’s made the copycat problem an industry-wide one. Copycat shows reportedly showed up in Apple and Overcast, among other platforms, because Anchor allows creators to check a box to have their RSS feed distributed elsewhere.
Apple approves podcasts before allowing them into its catalog, but still, these copycats made it through. Apple declined to comment for this story. Meanwhile, Overcast says it relies on Apple’s security system for its catalog, meaning if a show makes it through Anchor and Apple, it’ll end up in any other app that relies on Apple’s catalog.
Overcast doesn’t have its own approval process — it uses a podcast’s existence in the Apple Podcasts directory as a filter for whether to show it in Overcast, effectively outsourcing the approval process to Apple Podcasts, Marco Arment, CEO and founder of Overcast, tells The Verge. “I can and do respond to any claims sent to me, but I receive very few, as Overcast neither approves nor hosts podcasts directly,” he says. “That said, the vast majority of claims I do receive are for Anchor-hosted podcasts.”