Lawmakers: Fix Copyright Law to Stop Gamblers “Beating the Bookies”

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The UK Parliament's House of Lords has heard calls for a significant tightening of copyright law to tackle a most unusual threat. According to several Lords, the law should be updated to prevent live sporting events from being filmed by the public. Not to prevent piracy per se, but to close a 'loophole' that is being exploited by some to win large sums in the gambling market.

copyrightWhile there are plenty of stories of people hitting the proverbial jackpot when gambling, there are many more tales of habits becoming a problem.

As a result, bookmakers are often portrayed as preying on victims, trying every trick in the book to part people from their money. But what if there was a way to even things out a little, to “beat the bookies” as it were? As it stands, a small but significant loophole certainly exists and has done for some time.

Every Second Counts

In days gone by, when people placed a bet on a team to win, a fighter to prevail, or a horse to reach the post first, bets were placed before events started. However, modern technology now allows people to place “in play” bets, attempting to predict who will score the next goal, win the next round, or in a horse race, even throw away a big lead to come second, or worse.

While there is nothing particularly unusual here there is an open secret to consider. When people watch sporting events ‘live’ (even on bookmakers’ own apps), the images on screen are already seconds old. So, if a horse has a seemingly insurmountable lead on-screen and someone places a bet, that information is already out of date for everyone watching. Anything could’ve happened.

For bookmakers, however, everything happens live which is a big advantage. But what if there was a way to narrow the odds by ‘stealing’ a few seconds back? In horse racing, it appears there is. Through the use of high-specification drones deployed near race tracks, some enterprising individuals are streaming live feeds of horse races back to punters who can watch in near real-time.

It’s the equine version of so-called ‘courtsiding‘ that has netted some gamblers millions over the years and is equally frowned upon. Importantly, however, none of this is illegal in the UK so, in what appears to be an overreaction with significant potential for overreach, lawmakers want changes to copyright law to retip the balance of power.

The Alleged Problem To Be Fixed

In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this month, Viscount Astor (who has deep connections with the horse racing industry) asked the government what plans they have to broaden the scope of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act to include sporting events.

As things stand, copyright law protects creative works and similar creations, including films, sound recordings and broadcasts, such as horse racing events. However, live sporting events in themselves are not eligible for copyright protection until they are captured in a broadcast or recording. Even then, anyone with a camera can record an event, without breaking copyright law.

Viscount Astor painted this as problematic since these recordings apparently undermine media rights purchased by sporting bodies. Secondly, such recordings are allegedly funding “a vast expansion” of illegal gambling.

“In this country, terrestrial broadcasters are allocated low spectrum to transmit pictures, which results in a one-second or two-second delay between the live action and the broadcast,” he explained.

“If you fly a drone that is linked to a camera and then to a mobile telephone, or use one or more mobile telephones to record an event, you can transmit those pictures faster than television pictures as mobile telephones use a higher-spectrum frequency and therefore have up to a two-second advantage.

“So rogue operators are selling live pictures at a discount, and sporting bodies are losing out from the resulting diminution of their media income. This means that, when they have to renegotiate media rights, they will be offered less,” he said.

In his address, Viscount Astor painted the media rights issue as hugely problematic but there is no evidence to show that such streams are available outside a select group of hardcore insiders. Indeed, should anyone attempt to scale up such an operation, precious seconds-long delays would inevitably be introduced, rendering them much less attractive.

Nevertheless, he pressed his colleagues with the suggestion that third-party streams fuel illegal gambling on sites that are “often based abroad” and therefore totally unregulated.

“The illegal sites beat the bookmakers and betting shops by the two seconds when the broadcast is transmitted, because many bets are put on in the running or during a game. If you have a two-second advantage, although it might take someone like me a long time to put on a bet, if you are a clever person — and an addict, as it were — you can put on a bet very quickly, and that is what is happening,” he said.

“We do not want to criminalize the sports enthusiast for filming his favorite sporting event — that is not the point at all. You cannot ban people from filming, and nor should you, but you can follow the money. We want to stop those who are selling the pictures on, and not only debasing media rights but affecting the growth of harmful gambling.”

Lord Lipsey is in Full Agreement

Racehorse owner Lord Lipsey echoed Viscount Astor’s concerns, painting the drone pilot’s activities as a “scandal of legalized fraud” that negatively affects everyone involved in the sport, from fans through to “honest bookmakers”.

“Go to a racecourse now and you can hardly miss the drones; there are perhaps eight or 10 of them flying about all over the course, so what is going on? As the author of a work of racing fiction —Counter Coup, in all good bookshops now, as it has been for the last seven years — I would not dare dream up so implausible a plot as the reality of what is going on. In a nutshell, what is going on is tech-assisted cheating,” he said.

“This is not legitimate betting, to which I certainly have no objection. This is foul play, and it must be stopped. One way of doing so would be to give the racecourses copyright in all pictures so that at least the droners paid up out of their ill-gotten gains. Another would be to make such filming of sporting events a criminal offense.”

Copyright Law to Tackle Drones? Too Risky

While various speakers painted a grim picture, it was left to Lord Callanan to highlight why changes to copyright law are not the appropriate response to the perceived problem.

“[S]porting performances are not considered intellectual creations since the rules of sport leave only limited room for real creative freedom,” he said.

“Proposals to have sporting performances protected by copyright provisions raise grave concerns about the development of sport — for instance, if an athlete were able to protect their performance, or an aspect of it, from being copied by other athletes. We can see how many difficulties would be caused by going down that route.”

As Lord Callanan explained, the owner of copyright in sports footage is held by the person who films it, since they have creative control over how the event is filmed. Changes to copyright law to have events directly protected under copyright law would represent a reversal – the person who filmed it would hold no rights since they would be held by the organizers or even the participants.

Furthermore, there are already mechanisms in place to deal with the highlighted problems, when they break the law. Illegal gambling can be dealt with by the Gambling Commission, for example, which importantly doesn’t share the views in the House that drone filming is linked to illegal gambling.

“The Gambling Commission regulates nearly all commercial gambling in Great Britain, including all sports betting, and has so far found little evidence that illegal drone filming is linked to illegal gambling sites. The commission can take action against illegal operators, using its relationships with web-hosting companies and payment providers to disrupt these websites.”

In fact, according to the Gambling Commission, drones are used in a similar way to people simply attending events and watching them live. They are able to gather information about an event as it happens and, contrary to the claims of the other Lords, are primarily linked to people using legal betting platforms.

“[T]his type of courtsiding and other forms of illicit filming are not considered an offense under the Gambling Act,” Lord Callanan continued, adding that while the government recognizes that drones are causing a problem for some players in the horse racing sector, it has not yet seen “sufficient evidence” of any harm arising to justify any intervention at this time, much less an “unorthodox expansion” of the copyright regime.

“Not only would it be a significant and unprecedented development, with unknown impacts and unintended consequences, but it would move the globally well-established scope of copyright well beyond the protection of creators and creative industries and fundamentally alter the nature of what subject matter is protected,” he concluded.


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