The Sports Law & Policy Centre | The Impact of Digital Piracy on Sport
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The Impact of Digital Piracy on Sport

By Dr. Clinton Free

Rapid changes in technology, including increased broadband penetration, the development of online streaming platforms and advances in mobile infrastructure, now mean that live audio-visual content can be viewed on a growing range of devices by a burgeoning number of users worldwide. While these developments open up many opportunities for rights holders in sport to increase viewer footprint and revenues, they have also created significant new opportunities for the unauthorized transmission of key intellectual properties including copyrighted broadcasts.

Using reasonably ubiquitous technologies, pirates are now able to take decoded TV and broadband signals and distribute live streams of sporting events to millions of users worldwide. The facilitating technology is cheap and easily accessible and has led to a growth industry in internet piracy of sporting events. Some pirate sites charge for their illegal streams, while many others provide the streams for free employing advertising-based or even donation-based models. Broadcasters and rights holders also face numerous other violations of intellectual property and commercial rights such as those relating to unauthorized uploads of archival content online and the unlicensed use and commercialisation of trademarks and other proprietary content.

A number of studies have highlighted the unique market dynamics of digital piracy, where the existence of a large number of suppliers willing to provide pirated content at virtually zero price to consumers poses new and difficult challenges to copyright owners and policy makers around the globe. Like the music and movie industries, the sports industry has had to face this challenge head on given that it strikes at the very heart of the sports business model.

The Economics of Digital Piracy in Sport

The sale of rights to broadcasters is a major source of revenue for a large number of sports organizations and leagues throughout the world. Depending on individual contracts, the sale of broadcast and associated rights include:

  • Live broadcasting of sporting events (TV and radio);
  • Live or delayed streaming of events on the Internet;
  • Delayed broadcasts/streaming of sporting events;
  • Packaging of highlights;
  • Audio and audio-visual broadcast rights on new media, including mobile;
  • Subsequent DVD releases as individual events; and
  • Subsequent rebroadcasts of classic or historic sports events.

While each of the portfolio of media rights has value, it is the first two that are clearly the most important and valuable: live online broadcasts and, to a lesser degree, delayed and highlights transmissions and archived content. Whilst a significant demand for highlight footage exists for many sports, live broadcasts are pivotal to the consumption experience for most sports viewers.

In many ways, the immediacy of access enabled by online audio-visual streaming offers the perfect solution to those seeking ways in which to contravene the restrictions that are often placed on live sporting broadcasts in their traditional television format. The manner in which official rights are granted (usually sliced by territory, pay-per-view in some territories) provides fertile ground for pirates who feed demand by obviating these licensing restrictions. It is noteworthy that piracy has been noted on numerous occasions even when rights-holders have provided official free streaming service options.

It would be a mistake to assume that there is little financial gain to be achieved from distributing or hosting unauthorised streams. Start-up costs are minimal, if any. Competition comes from official providers that have paid license fees that they must attempt to recoup. In this scenario, piracy is good, albeit illegal, business. Advertising represents a major revenue source for many pirate sites, and generates substantial revenues. Some sites request that users make voluntary donations towards ‘operating costs’ (usually through PayPal, Google Checkout or similar payment services). Many streaming sites will also feature a video advertisement that must be played before a stream will begin (so called ‘pre-roll’ advertising). Common sources for on-site advertising include Google Ads, and content delivered through syndicated advertising (such as that offered by AdBrite).

The Adverse Effects of Digital Piracy in Sport

While there is some debate concerning the scale of the issue, there is no doubt that digital piracy occasions real and direct negative impacts on sport. The extent of this impact is wide-ranging and includes the following:

  • Siphons-off broadcaster revenues and royalty/licensing fees;
  • Discourages or loses official sponsorships;
  • Dilutes exclusivity and compromises sponsor and licensee relationships;
  • Intercepts web traffic intended for authorised sites or pages;
  • Damages image and reputation;
  • Creates public affairs challenges and incidents;
  • Adds content and brand protection costs and legal overhead; and
  • Shrinks return on marketing investments.

Current Trends in Digital Piracy

In broad terms, it is possible to distinguish between three technological platforms that support digital piracy on the internet. Unauthorized re-transmission can be facilitated by each of the following technologies:

  • P2P Streams – This refers to technology used to distribute content through a decentralised network of peers. Each connected user (peer) offers part of their own bandwidth to other network participants to distribute information without the need for a core server. A central ‘tracker’ sorts streams on offer but plays no part in distribution. Some (such as SopCast and TVU) allow users to ‘inject’ their own content.
  • UGC Live Streams – This refers to live streaming on sites purporting to provide hosting for user-generated video. Most UGC Live sites rely on Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), though some (e.g., Veetle) use P2P technology.
  • Unicast Streams – Technically, ‘unicast’ refers to direct streaming from server to user. It is a bandwidth-intensive process that requires one version of the stream to be broadcast to each viewer.

Case Study: Online Piracy of Cricket Broadcasts

It is noteworthy that the last three years have witnessed two important trends in the digital piracy of cricket content:

  • a movement towards more advertising-based piracy models as opposed to pay-for-view models; and
  • rapid growth in UGC Live piracy.

Each of these developments has had the effect of increasing free access to unauthorised streams of live cricket action online.

The move away from pay-for content live streaming

One of the most substantial shifts in the dynamics of cricket broadcast piracy over the past three years has been the continued growth of live stream piracy available at no cost to viewers. The streams are generally funded by advertising built into web pages using established advertising service providers such as Google AdSense, AdBrite and Clicksor in addition to advertising and monetization services provided by pirate entities themselves. The rapid growth in free streams has reduced the audience of consumers paying for unauthorised live streams. A number of pay-for-content websites persist, offering feeds for a fraction of the cost of official sources. The major drivers in the growth of advertising-supported piracy models have been advances in technology that have greatly reduced the cost of hosting streams as well as the rise of several large UGC Live web sites.

The development and popularity of UGC Live Sites

In 2005, the majority of unauthorised live streams in sport utilised Unicast streaming technology. The providers of Unicast streams often required viewers to pay for streaming in order to cover the cost of dedicated servers with enough bandwidth to support the direct streaming offered to thousands of simultaneous users. However, between 2005 and 2008, a clear trend in cricket piracy developed whereby P2P technology became the dominant method used to stream live sport through the internet.

In the past three years, the predominant source of piracy in sport has become UGC Live sites.

There are three logical reasons for this rise. Firstly, the introduction of easy-to-use online platforms such as Ustream.tv and Justin.tv has made UGC streaming very accessible. Second, UGC Live streams are free at the point of production and consumption. Thirdly, UGC Live sites do not require the downloading of any facilitating software for viewers such that UGC Live streams can be viewed through any basic internet browser. As a result of the growing availability of UGC Live-based streaming services, there has been a relative reduction in the number of dedicated sites that require users to pay for direct streaming access (Unicast systems) as well as P2P-based live streaming for sport.

The move towards UGC Live forms of streaming has also ultimately entailed a shift towards a more commercial model of streaming in which there are substantial revenues to be accrued from on-site advertising. Compliance to the principles set forth in the DMCA legislation varies considerably across UGC Live platforms. Several provide a facility for authorised agents to directly take down streams, however many new players fail to offer this essential service to rights holders.

Conclusion

The ability to distribute internet-wide, live unauthorised streams of sports events makes it possible for viewers around the world to access content quickly and easily without any compensation to the sports whose rights are infringed. This poses a significant adverse threat to sports organisations, their broadcast licensees and others linked in the global business sector surrounding live sports. This availability of illegal streams limits the amount of money flowing in to broadcasters, and ultimately channelling through to sports rights owners. These sources of income are crucial to the future sustainability of sports from the grass-roots level right up to professional sports leagues.