More than one million people watch football games on the internet for free, not knowing that it is illegal.
The sites that show matches are now being targeted as Graham Satchell reports.
The Premier League is planning an aggressive campaign to protect its intellectual property rights in an attempt to clamp down on rogue websites that show football matches for nothing and pub landlords who broadcast foreign feeds, amid fears that they could damage its income from broadcasting rights.
Having recently recorded a surge in the number of people watching via websites that transmit live pictures from overseas broadcasters or allow users to share vision using “peer-to-peer” video sites, the league is determined to push the issue up the political agenda.
Premier League lawyers want the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, and the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, to crack down on copyright infringement by making internet service providers responsible for the actions of their subscribers, and appoint an “IP tsar” to coordinate action across government.
Having been vigilant for years against wholesale piracy the league’s lawyers have recently taken a high-profile lobbying role in the UK, Europe and internationally. The league has been liaising with sporting authorities around the world, media owners and other affected parties to highlight the need for urgent action and more consistent enforcement.
The chief executive, Richard Scudamore, last week told the all-party IP group of MPs that the government needed to take a harder line and do more to implement the recommendations in a report on copyright by Andrew Gowers. Stephen Carter, the communications minister, is due to unveil a draft report on the future of Digital Britain next week.
“The ISPs have got to take more responsibility,” said a Premier League lawyer. “We have sent over 700 cease-and-desist letters and had an 87% success rate this season. [But] one of our problems is that often the sites reregister a domain name, using false names and addresses, and sign up with an ISP in a less protected country – 60% of peer-to-peer activity has been coming out of China. ISPs have to take on a stronger role and have a better enforcement policy.”
The league said that when officials from countries traditionally seen as “safe harbours”, such as China, were confronted about piracy, they typically asked why more was not being done by the UK government or within Europe.
Already millions of computer users across the world watch matches live without paying a subscription fee. The Premier League fears that the mainstream use of broadband and the increased popularity of watching video online make widespread piracy a very real prospect, which could seriously reduce the amount broadcasters are prepared to pay.
Sporting authorities are terrified of following the path of the music industry, which saw its business model collapse after it failed to combat digital piracy. The league made £625m from its overseas rights deals last time around and a total of £2.7bn overall, and is banking on another increase after 2010 to compensate for a potential dip in domestic income.
The Premier League recently led a coalition of 27 sporting bodies to prepare a background report for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at the behest of the G8. The report said unauthorised live streams of some sporting events were already being watched by more than one million people.
Websites that offer access to live unauthorised coverage from PCs, usually sourced from overseas broadcasters in the Far East or around the world, have been popular with a small minority of web users unwilling to pay for a TV subscription for some time.
Poor quality pictures and audio, combined with the determination required to track them down, previously made them a niche pursuit. But with feeds now of a higher quality and easier to access there are fears that more and more cash-strapped fans will turn to them.
And with many of the illicit feeds originating from China and elsewhere around the world, the Premier League is reliant on specialist internet firms to track them down and persuade internet service providers to punish individuals.
Late last year, the Premier League threatened action against the US website, Justin.tv, which allows its users to share and stream footage from all over the world. It has also launched a high-profile class action against YouTube, which is expected to be heard in the US later this year. The original class action, launched in 2007, was recently superseded by a second complaint at the end of last year.
Scudamore has been bullish about the prospect of the value of its media deals holding up despite the global economic slump that has affected media companies and their advertisers, because live Premier League crucial is considered so crucial to their business models.
Major US sporting bodies are also taking the prospect of revenue loss from illicit online viewing seriously. Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association have all taken steps to stem the rising tide of online piracy. MLB employees three people full-time to monitor illegal broadcasts and last year recorded 5,000 separate incidents.
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