Premier League launches major fight back against illegal streaming

Paul MacInnes
A television steadycam films a Premier League match being shown live. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

The Premier League has launched its biggest crackdown on piracy with a series of moves to combat illegal streaming, in light of fears that widespread availability of new consumer-friendly devices could fatally undermine its business model.

The streaming of live football through the internet, bypassing companies such as Sky who have paid for the broadcast rights, has long been a problem for the game’s governing bodies. What was once a minority activity, available only to those with digital skills and knowledge of the more shadowy parts of the internet, has in the past few years become mainstream. Estimates at the number of piracy-enabled devices in the UK, either apps or so‑called ‘Kodi boxes’, reach the hundreds of thousands.

As official TV audiences decline, the Premier League has begun to fight back, engaging with police forces across the UK and abroad and collaborating with internet service providers (ISPs) as it seeks to protect its lucrative intellectual property before bidding begins next year on a new broadcast deal.

The list of actions initiated by the Premier League this year include a series of raids across the north-west at the beginning of February in which five people were arrested in connection with the sale and distribution of ‘Kodi boxes’. Two weeks ago a man from Hartlepool was given a suspended sentence and a fine of £250,000 for attempting to sell the devices to individuals and pubs. In Málaga Spanish authorities seized equipment belonging to the ISP Y Internet, and in Belfast two business premises were stripped of “a range of TV and computer equipment”. Most significantly this month Judge Richard Arnold granted an order in the high court to allow the UK’s four biggest ISPs to block access to entire online servers.

“The Premier League is currently engaged in its largest ever anti-piracy campaign to protect its copyright,” a Premier League spokesman told the Guardian. “Like other sports and creative industries our model is predicated on the ability to market and sell rights and protect our intellectual property. It is because of this that clubs can invest in and develop talented players, build world-class stadiums, support the English football pyramid and schools and communities across the country – all things that fans enjoy and wider society benefits from.”

The consumption of video content has never been easier and certainly never more prevalent. People have become used to getting whatever they want at the touch of a button and pirates have found ways of making that possible for illegal streams, be it of football matches or feature films. Kodi is just a current vehicle for the practice. An entirely legal app offering an entirely legal service, Kodi has been hijacked by pirates who offer software ‘plug-ins’ that bring illegal streams to your smartphone or TV via a customised set top box.

Kodi, for its part, insists that allowing third-party involvement to its app is part of its ‘open source’ culture and that it is too late to turn back. “If we were to shut down third-party add-ons entirely in the next version of Kodi, our open source licence means that anyone could fork our software and easily re-enable those add-ons immediately,” said the company’s Nate Belzen. “Now that the software is there, it simply can’t go away.”

“There is no actual measure of the number of people [using enabled devices] but, when you see the ease with which people now use apps and add-ons, then take in the number of devices and interest in content, there is little doubt that a huge number of people are using them now,” said Nick Matthew, the investigations manager at the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) which has worked closely with the Premier League in recent months.

“Fundamentally people are now living through devices – it’s part of their life. There’s no doubt that being sat at home and doing something on your phone doesn’t feel like a crime because it doesn’t involve physical act – even if, were you to stop and think about it, you would know that it was.”

A strategy that involves confronting and prosecuting consumers is not the approach the Premier League is taking. This could be for several reasons, including the reputational damage suffered by the recording industry when it pursued such a strategy in the 2000s, and a 2014 European Court ruling which found that streams on people’s computers were temporary not permanent files and therefore not necessarily the object of an act of theft. Instead the Premier League is aiming for those facilitating the sale of enabled devices or putting up online streams.

The high court ruling this month looks likely to give the Premier League its biggest chance of success. For the first time ISPs – including the UK’s four biggest providers BT, Sky, Talk Talk and Virgin Media – have been given the right to prevent access not just to individual streams but to the servers that host them. In the past, when one stream or a single site had been blocked, pirates have simply reposted the content on another server, resulting in what became known in the industry as ‘playing whack-a-mole’. Now that option will quickly become a limited one. This weekend’s round of Premier League fixtures will be the second in which the ruling has had a chance to be applied.

If the Premier League does manage to turn the tide and secure another bumper contract with Sky, BT Sport or another broadcaster, this seems unlikely to be the end of the story. Not only is technological change so rapid that it would be foolish to predict an end to piracy; it is also true that audiences’ habits are changing. Services such as Netflix have made masses of content available on any device for a small fee. Social media has created an audience used to watching not one entire match but clips and highlights of several.

Sky Sports has begun to adjust its offering, serving up all the weekend’s goals via its Snapchat account on Monday morning, for example. A holistic, digital‑first deal is surely going to become a priority soon enough. Perhaps the Premier League will even do it itself some day.

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