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Meet The Guy Who Changed Porn Forever

The former ‘King of Porn’ surveys the destruction of his previous empire.

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Online porn is at something of a crossroads. High-quality, high-def streaming adult videos are everywhere, but the margins for those who produce and perform are slim, and getting slimmer by the day. Earlier this month, Playboy announced its decision to get rid of naked photos, thanks, in part, to the saturation of tawdry free photos online. In a sprawling feature on the state of the industry, Wired declared that porn's "very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally."

Basically: It’s getting a lot harder to make easy money selling pixelated sex online. And while porn’s tectonic cultural shifts are complex, they were largely set in motion by one man.

From 2010 to late 2013, Fabian Thylmann presided over the meteoric rise of a company called MindGeek, a collection of online adult streaming video (or “tube”) sites that became one of the largest and most powerful adult entertainment conglomerates ever assembled — and in turn, irrevocably influenced the course of countless business ventures and careers.

At various points, MindGeek (formerly called Manwin) has owned eight of the top ten tube sites, some of which are the most trafficked in the world. Outside observers have called MindGeek a monopoly and a vampiric hydra; industry producers have described it as a scourge, attributing it to the downfall of the adult industry’s famed profit margins. Among the changes Mindgeek has wrought: a glut of stolen content, now available for free on tube sites across the internet, and a 70% drop in revenue on standard pay sites, according to industry veteran Colin Rowntree. And while tube sites and producers dispute the business tactics behind porn’s shrinking margins, few debate that the landscape has been dramatically altered.

Thylmann himself is as controversial as his former company. Through one lens, he’s a prolific entrepreneur, working his way from an engineer to the architect of an adult empire. He secured major bank funding and bought up larger tube sites (YouPorn, another example) as well as major mainstream adult production studios (Babes.com, Digital Playground, Reality Kings, Twistys, Playboy’s online and TV studio arms). CNBC called Thylmann the “King of Porn” in 2012, but in some adult industry circles he’s reviled as “Porn Enemy Number One" (link is NSFW) for building out the tubes. He’s discussed sex worker issues at black-tie debates at Oxford, but he's also been extradited to Germany from Belgium for tax evasion, for which he was formally indicted in 2015.

He’s out of the adult game now, working as an angel investor for more mainstream tech companies like FrontBack and Giant Swarm. But Thylmann keeps a watchful eye on his former industry. After BuzzFeed News published a feature on a group of entrepreneurs trying to take back the porn industry from the vise-grip of the tubes, Thylmann expressed his deep skepticism toward a new class of adult entrepreneurs, suggesting that the ideas were “old and tried before. You are not innovating!” he tweeted.

When reached by email from his home in Belgium, Thylmann expanded on his doubt about the industry’s ability to harness technology to move out of its current situation. “Innovation will not get you very far. There is only so much you can innovate in porn,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It is a content business — you can simply make it easier to get the content. And how much easier than free can you make it? The type or style of content matters little here. And there is little that a company like MindGeek is not involved in already.”

It gets bleaker. Thylmann doesn’t fully buy into the idea that porn has long been a driving force in tech and internet innovation — “when it comes to internet things, the only thing [porn] can claim is that it helped increase bandwidth by some factor,” he said — and believes that porn has irreparably damaged its standing in the tech landscape. “Innovation in the porn industry has stopped a long time ago in my opinion. Advanced technologies are not used heavily. Very little new tech comes out of the industry (compared to non-porn, where plenty of big tech companies have contributed tools to the internet industry heavily used everywhere),” he claimed.

Thylmann’s opinions place him in an awkward position. His grim view of the industry is the result of a situation he largely helped to build. But when Thylmann considers his legacy and its lasting impact on the porn world, he views his success as part of an inevitable transformation — one that was in motion before he became a major player.

“It was bound to happen ... The porn industry caused this to itself. It started giving away free content long before I came along...YouTube came about and was immediately copied in porn a few days later. I saw all these things and simply started to build a strategy around it, aggregating as much of the free content related websites and matching it with paying ones to optimally make money in the field. Add cold, hard business logic to this, and you have a winner,” he wrote.

Jeff Mullen, known in the business as Will Ryder, has worked in the industry in various capacities since 1983, when he started composing music for adult films. He won the 2010 AVN Award for Director of the Year, and his IMDb page lists 93 directorial credits, most of them for his screwball parodies. He told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that he’s watched his films appear again and again on the tubes just hours after releasing them at full length and in high definition.

After years of observing helplessly, Mullen said last year he's considering getting out of the industry. With little prompting, he excoriated the tubes, calling Mindgeek “the single biggest enemy of the porn industry. They are the company responsible for the complete downfall of the porn industry.

“They stole everyone's stuff, mine included, and expect us to send a lawyer asking them to take it down. Once they take it down, three days later they put it back up. It’s a never-ending game of bullshit and I’m out,” he said. “They're liars and the scum of the earth,” he said. “They're complete fucking thieves and it’s too late to fuck them. If the adult industry was still controlled like the mob like in '70s, this would never have happened.”

Thylmann stressed that despite the harsh accusations of misconduct from others, his intervention created more stability. “If I would not have done this, all these free sites would still be there, but they would be there controlled by many different people. And likely, people with much worse intentions than I ever had,” he wrote to BuzzFeed News. He argued that he spent considerable efforts to rein in copyright violations, noting that one of his first business decisions with Manwin was bringing in a law firm to handle copyright and DMCA issues. “I wanted to fully understand the law, logic and reasons behind everything that was to be done and could not be done."

“Any DMCA notice sent into the sites was dealt with as fast as possible. In my opinion, we did everything possible to make it as easy as possible," he wrote. And when confronted with testimonies from producers and performers that argue stolen content wasn’t taken down efficiently or even at all, Thylmann was defensive. “[DMCA law] is needed for many reasons, and you can argue that Manwin profited from the law, but as I said, others did too and we did not break any rules.”

Ultimately, Thylmann is unapologetic about Manwin’s successes and what his former empire has wrought in the years since his departure. He concedes that porn’s shrinking margins were, at least in part, a result of his company’s dominance. “Manwin simply is one of the causes for the industry maturing,” he wrote. “We merged so many businesses under one roof, that we made it very hard for the old-timers to make any real money in their old business logics anymore.”

It’s a rather blunt acknowledgment from Thylmann that Manwin created a monster and that there’s no going back.

“I do not see this changing anytime soon,” he told BuzzFeed News. “These handful of companies simply have too much power for any meaningful competition to emerge.”

Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.

Contact Charlie Warzel at charlie.warzel@buzzfeed.com.

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