Sky: People Can’t Pirate Live Soccer in the UK Anymore

Sky's head of litigation made a rather surprising statement at an industry convention in Macau this week. Matthew Hibbert told those in attendance that thanks to site-blocking, it's no longer possible to watch pirated live soccer in the UK anymore. Meanwhile, the UK Intellectual Property Office has revealed that when questioned a while back, rightsholders told them that pirate boxes weren't a problem. How things change.

The commotion over the set-top box streaming phenomenon is showing no signs of dying down and if day one at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) Conference 2017 was anything to go by, things are only heating up.

Held at Studio City in Macau, the conference has a strong anti-piracy element and was opened by Joe Welch, CASBAA Board Chairman and SVP Public Affairs Asia, 21st Century Fox. He began Tuesday by noting the important recent launch of a brand new anti-piracy initiative.

“CASBAA recently launched the Coalition Against Piracy, funded by 18 of the region’s content players and distribution partners,” he said.

TF reported on the formation of the coalition mid-October. It includes heavyweights such as Disney, Fox, HBO, NBCUniversal and BBC Worldwide, and will have a strong focus on the illicit set-top box market.

Illegal streaming devices (or ISDs, as the industry calls them), were directly addressed in a segment yesterday afternoon titled Face To Face. Led by Dr. Ros Lynch, Director of Copyright & IP Enforcement at the UK Intellectual Property Office, the session detailed the “onslaught of online piracy” and the rise of ISDs that is apparently “shaking the market”.

Given the apparent gravity of those statements, the following will probably come as a surprise. According to Lynch, the UK IPO sought the opinion of UK-based rightsholders about the pirate box phenomenon a while back after being informed of their popularity in the East. The response was that pirate boxes weren’t an issue. It didn’t take long, however, for things to blow up.

“The UKIPO provides intelligence and evidence to industry and the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) in London who then take enforcement actions,” Lynch explained.

“We first heard about the issues with ISDs from [broadcaster] TVB in Hong Kong and we then consulted the UK rights holders who responded that it wasn’t a problem. Two years later the issue just exploded.”

The evidence of that in the UK isn’t difficult to find. In addition to millions of devices with both free Kodi addon and subscription-based systems deployed, the app market has bloomed too, offering free or near to free content to all.

This caught the eye of the Premier League who this year obtained two pioneering injunctions (1,2) to tackle live streams of football games. Streams are blocked by local ISPs in real-time, making illicit online viewing a more painful experience than it ever has been. No doubt progress has been made on this front, with thousands of streams blocked, but according to broadcaster Sky, the results are unprecedented.

“Site-blocking has moved the goalposts significantly,” said Matthew Hibbert, head of litigation at Sky UK.

“In the UK you cannot watch pirated live Premier League content anymore,” he said.

While progress has been good, the statement is overly enthusiastic. TF sources have been monitoring the availability of pirate streams on around dozen illicit sites and services every Saturday (when it is actually illegal to broadcast matches in the UK) and service has been steady on around half of them and intermittent at worst on the rest.

There are hundreds of other platforms available so while many are definitely affected by Premier League blocking, it’s safe to assume that live football piracy hasn’t been wiped out. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that no progress has been made, in this and other related areas.

Kevin Plumb, Director of Legal Services at The Premier League, said that pubs showing football from illegal streams had also massively dwindled in numbers.

“In the past 18 months the illegal broadcasting of live Premier League matches in pubs in the UK has been decimated,” he said.

This result is almost certainly down to prosecutions taken in tandem with the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), that have seen several landlords landed with large fines. Indeed, both sides of the market have been tackled, with both licensed premises and IPTV device sellers being targeted.

“The most successful thing we’ve done to combat piracy has been to undertake criminal prosecutions against ISD piracy,” said FACT chief Kieron Sharp yesterday. “Everyone is pleading guilty to these offenses.”

Most if not all of FACT-led prosecutions target device and subscription sellers under fraud legislation but that could change in the future, Lynch of the Intellectual Property Office said.

“While the UK works to update its legislation, we can’t wait for the new legislation to take enforcement actions and we rely heavily on ‘conspiracy to defraud’ charges, and have successfully prosecuted a number of ISD retailers,” she said.

Finally, information provided yesterday by network company CISCO shine light on what it costs to run a subscription-based pirate IPTV operation.

Director of Intelligence & Security Operations Avigail Gutman said a pirate IPTV server offering 1,000 channels to around 1,000 subscribers can cost as little as 2,000 euros per month to run but can generate 12,000 euros in revenue during the same period.

“In April of 2017, ten major paid TV and content providers had relinquished 3.09 million euros per month to 285 ISD-based streaming pirate syndicates,” she said.

There’s little doubt that IPTV piracy, both paid and free, is here to stay. The big question is how it will be tackled short and long-term and whether any changes in legislation will have any unintended knock-on effects.

Update November 9: CASBAA has been in touch with TorrentFreak with an amendment to Matt Hibbert’s comments. Rather than the quote provided by the organization previously, Hibbert is now reported as saying the following:

“In the UK you cannot easily now watch live Premier League content. It (the site blocking order) drives piracy back to the margins.”

That certainly makes more sense, given the situation on the ground.

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