Tackling the Growing Sports Piracy Problem Prompts Call for Faster Take Down Regimes
Two clocks are ticking. A shot clock measures the immediate need for sports broadcasters to adopt more rapid take down/blocking responses to illegal streaming of their events.* Meanwhile, the game clock measures a need to more holistically mitigate the growing sports piracy trend before the market comprises only Millennials and GenXers who are, not surprisingly, more piracy-prone than their parents and grandparents.
According to a report published by Synamedia, only 16% of international fans polled engage in zero illegal access of sports broadcasts, and as usual, piracy rationales and habits vary according to region and age. Consistent with other piracy studies, Synamedia’s data reveal that most fans mix legal and illegal viewing, often for obvious reasons like inaccessibility due to regional licensing.
As long as there is a desire to watch an event that is unavailable in a given location, and a technology exists to circumvent the legal routes, broadcast piracy may never be fully eliminated. But at the moment, piracy of sports is increasing, thanks largely to the technology known as Internet Protocol Television (IPTV).
IPTV is accessed via software that looks like a legitimate streaming interface (e.g. Netflix), but which is in fact sourcing both live and recorded material from networks of pirate servers located around the world. So, a viewer in the EU paying perhaps €8 to €12 per month for an illegal IPTV service can watch a hijacked, live broadcast of a sporting event, bypassing subscription to either the licensed broadcasters or the Pay-Per-View fees charged for certain events like major boxing matches. As DigitalTV Europe reported in mid-June, Italian authorities recently shut down 600 pirate football sites and intends to fine end-users who illegally streamed the games €1.032 each.
Sporting events are typically not a subject of copyright protection, but teams and organizations retain the exclusive right to license the broadcasts of their events. In some countries, the broadcasts (or at least the recordings of same) are protected by copyright, but regardless of the distinctions in regional copyright laws, broadcast licensing of sporting events is integral to the economic ecosystem for any nation with a professional sports industry.
As with any harm to a system, there is always a tipping point at which the harm will begin to cannibalize sustainability. Usually, we cannot know precisely where that tipping point lies, and the harm being done is often conveniently invisible to those causing it. Much like the piracy of motion pictures, sports fans see well-paid star athletes, coaches, and reporters on the screen and often assume that professional sports broadcasting can afford their intermittent use of pirate access.
But perhaps less visible to the pirating fan is that, for instance, in markets like Europe and Australia, revenues from sports broadcasts directly support the athletic clubs that develop young talent. As such, unchecked piracy could ultimately damage sport itself.
Today’s 20-year-old fans could theoretically engage in enough piracy to shrink the variety and quality of the sporting events they’ll get to watch by the time they’re 40-year-old fans. This symbiosis between the incubator athletic clubs and professional broadcast revenues is just one of several points highlighted in a resolution addressing sports piracy that was introduced by the European Parliament in May.
Emphasizing the value of professional sports and sports broadcasting beyond the economic contribution of 2,12% of Union GDP, the resolution states, “…sport plays a key role in the social, cultural and economic prosperity of the Union and promotes common values of solidarity, diversity and social inclusion….” More specifically, the EU resolution recognizes the fact thatpiracy of a sporting event is different from piracy of other material. Unlike a motion picture—or even a music concert—the value of a sports broadcast is concentrated in the fans’ eagerness to see the event live. Or as the EU resolution states:
… whereas, unlike other sectors, most of the value of a sports event broadcast lies in the fact that it is live and most of that value is lost when the event ends; whereas illegal streaming of sports event broadcasts is at its most harmful in the first thirty minutes of its appearance online; whereas, consequently and only in this context, an immediate reaction is needed to put an end to the illegal transmission online of sports events
Immediate reaction is exactly what is being proposed due to the fact that existing injunctive and take down procedures are too sluggish to have any meaningful effect on the piracy of sports broadcasts. “Real-time take down should be the objective,” the resolution states, proposing a system whereby “certified trusted flaggers” would be able to notify online intermediaries of illegal live streams early enough that they can be removed almost instantly, ideally within the first thirty minutes of the broadcast.
At the same time, the resolution emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between illegal streams of whole broadcasts from streams of short segments used by fans and news media for purposes generally protected under copyright law.
So far, it does not look as though the usual anti-copyright suspects have denounced the EU proposal, but if past is prologue, somebody probably will. Removing illegal streams as rapidly as the May resolution recommends would signal a major leap forward in the take down/disabling paradigm; and if the remedies are successful, we can probably expect other rightsholders to use the same systems and technologies to more efficiently combat piracy of their material. Hence, the EU resolution could mark a very significant development in combatting media piracy overall.
The shift from download-based illegal distribution to streaming via technologies like IPTV has been advantageous for pirates in several ways, not the least of which is the ability to promote illegal streaming though easy-to-use interfaces that look and function just like legitimate streaming networks. Consequently, if the sports broadcasters prove to be the vanguard in effectively disabling illegal streams in real-time, this could be a substantial blow to many pirates’ ability to earn revenue because they have a shot clock, too.
In the piracy game, making money often depends on the interval between providing illegal access and that access being blocked or removed. By tightening up the defense and closing that window of opportunity, the profit potential for the pirate decreases, which should result in fewer pirates wanting to play the game in the first place.
*Shot clocks are used in a few sports and games, but most prominently in basketball. Upon taking possession of the ball, a team has 24 seconds to attempt a shot before automatically losing possession.