On any given weekend, English football will be watched by an audience in the millions in the UK.
Live coverage of the Premier League is big business. TV broadcast rights are sold off for billions each season but hidden within the marketplace is a lingering challenge to stakeholders.
Illegal streams are a headache that will not go away. For all of the money generated by supporters who are content to pay monthly subscriptions to authorised partners and providers, there is a significant minority who continue to watch the action unfolding at home via illicit platforms.
Piracy is nothing new and not a problem unique to football or the UK. Yet there are concerns the prevalence of pirated content — across the sport and entertainment industry — is increasing. Seek it out and invariably it can be found.
“There’s no dressing it up, it’s a huge problem that doesn’t seem like it’ll go away,” says Paolo Pescatore, a technology and media analyst at PP Foresight. “The industry, whether that’s Hollywood or live sport, needs to address it head on because these pirates are becoming smart when it comes to distributing that premium content over the internet.”
Like the challenges that faced the music industry around the turn of the century, technological advancements have opened up doors for the piracy of live sport. It once might have been the occasional pub showing games it should not but illegal content has gradually seeped into living rooms.
As well as the websites that are knowingly in breach of copyright every time a live game is shown, set-top boxes and “fire sticks” containing modified software can also offer access to coverage from around the globe. That typically comes with a one-off annual payment that is a fraction of the sums required to watch games via the UK’s Premier League broadcast partners: Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime.
There is also the content that should not be available to UK viewers, including 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday. Feeds from international broadcasters, such as BeIN and NBC, are taken, sidestepping the traditional blackout that prevents live football from being shown on Saturday afternoons in the UK. The attractions are obvious but watching content through an unauthorised source — free of charge or paid-for — amounts to illegal streaming.
The Premier League trusts its data that shows consumption of illicit streams in the UK is in steady decline owing to comprehensive anti-piracy programmes, but other research suggests piracy continues to see a “harmful, rising trend” evident across Europe.
The Audiovisual Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAPA) produced a report in December that estimated 17 million Europeans aged between 16 and 74 viewed illegal content in 2021, with the youngest people being the most prominent users.
That study had a broad reach and was not limited to live football yet reflected a pattern that sees illicit internet protocol television (IPTV, the delivery of TV content over IP networks) use climbing across the continent. It was reported that the legitimate industry lost out on almost £3billion ($3.7billion) of revenue in 2021 alone, and those orchestrating illegal output were said to have made in the region of £1billion.
“This study highlights the very real damage done to legitimate pay-TV providers by widespread use of illicit IPTV piracy by Europe’s citizens,” said Mark Mulready, co-president of AAPA, and vice president of Cyber Services at Irdeto.
This is the age of IPTV. It is how we watch Netflix, Disney, Amazon and every other streaming provider, and marks a gradual shift away from satellite TV, offering greater flexibility and choice to consumers.
It is also how in-home piracy has become an increasing headache for the authorities.
“The move towards IP and streaming was inevitable because we’ve seen it in other genres, such as music,” says Pescatore. “When you move towards distribution over the internet, then it inevitably leads to the rise of illegal streaming.”
The appliances often used to facilitate illegal streams, such as an Amazon Fire TV Stick or Google Chromecast, break no laws in their unaltered form but are modified and sold with unauthorised apps that allow users to access copyrighted content. The devices can also be missold as legitimate, legal options for the buyer.
“We don’t have detailed figures on consumption but I can tell you that I don’t think it’s decreasing,” says Mathieu Harel, product and anti-piracy services director at Viaccess-Orca, a market leader in content protection based in France.
“IP networks are on the rise. Buying illegal subscriptions, watching content on your smart TV, a dedicated set-top box… those networks are the real threat.”
Rather than chasing individual viewers in what would be an arduous, labour-intensive process, the authorities typically target those selling the devices for profit to stop the issue at its source. Several prosecutions have been successful in recent years, with jail sentences common.
Paul Faulkner was given a 16-month prison sentence at Liverpool Crown Court in the summer of 2021. He had operated IPTV service TV Solutions, offering illegal access to content that included Premier League football.
Faulkner pleaded guilty to multiple copyright and fraud offences, including accessing pirated content for his own use. That charge alone amounted to four months of his overall sentence.
Steven King was sentenced to prison for seven years and four months in 2019 for masterminding the streaming operation Dreambox. Last year, King was ordered to pay back £963,000 to the public purse by Warwick Crown Court or face having his sentence extended by a further six years.
“This result clearly shows that supplying illegal streams is a criminal offence leading to prison sentences and significant financial consequences,” said Premier League lawyer Kevin Plumb.
“We are pleased the courts have recognised the seriousness of piracy-related crimes and the Premier League has requested all money recovered goes back to public bodies, including law enforcement agencies, to help them continue the fantastic work they do in helping bring people like this to justice.”
Kieron Sharp, director general at the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), has also been clear. “For those people using services such as this, do not think that this is a grey area. It is not, it is breaking the law.”
The Premier League is involved in its largest prosecution of a pirate network and the trial, underway at Birmingham Crown Court, is due to conclude in March. There has also been involvement from the Premier League on a global anti-piracy programme that worked alongside Spanish police and Europol to shut down Mobdro, which had operated as the world’s largest illegal streaming app.
That forceful approach underlines the threat that is being faced. A failure to protect its coveted, copyrighted material could theoretically lead to the value of TV rights diminishing and the Premier League actively works with organisations, such as FACT and domestic broadcast partners Sky Sports and BT Sport, to combat piracy.
“Protecting the Premier League’s copyright and the investment made by our broadcast partners, is hugely important to us and the future health of English football,” says the Premier League. “The ability that clubs have to develop and acquire talented players, to build and improve stadiums, and to support communities and schools is all predicated on being able to market, sell and protect commercial rights.”
The top flight and EFL have set up email addresses for supporters to report any illegal streams or pubs where content is shown unlawfully. An increasing focus on streaming content, with passes sold by clubs for £10 per game, led to the EFL launching a campaign to discourage the use of pirate coverage. Early in the 2020-21 season, it said more than 7,000 illegal EFL streams had been detected, with an average of 170 people watching each one.
“You need a cohesive effort among everybody,” says Pescatore. “The impact eventually will be very clear because unless it’s addressed then customers will turn around and say they’re not paying the money and will cut back and watch illegally.
“There are solutions out there with DRM, digital rights management, with watermarking where you can actually trace where that piece of content is being streamed to. But these guys are very smart and quickly create new streams. It doesn’t feel like this is something they can sort immediately.”
Harel accepts it is a thankless task. “When we are dealing with anti-piracy, our job is to create frustration,” he says. “It is impossible to fully get rid of piracy.
“We can use Google to ensure that a legal offering is the top search and not an illegal site. When we are working with social networks, there are mechanisms in place to remove the distribution of illegally distributed content.
“In the UK, there is IP blocking, where a website is blocked, and the Premier League is using that during games. All of the leagues are very aware of the issue.”
This month West Mercia Police, a force covering Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire, made its intent known to visit 1,000 homes in a crackdown on illegal streaming.
Those targeted were found on a database of customers believed to be accessing unauthorised content. An earlier raid on a UK-based provider had provided the information for officials to act upon and it was promised those guilty of illegal streaming could be served with notices.
“Operation Raider” was a joint venture between West Mercia Police, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) and FACT that “deployed cutting-edge digital tactics to identify and detect people who break the law”, according to detective inspector Matt McNellis.
“Often illegal streaming is used to fund serious organised crime,” he added. “West Mercia Cybercrime Unit is committed to interdicting this source of criminal revenue and reducing the harm organised crime groups can do to our communities.”
That is a threat the authorities are keen to make clear. A direct link has been drawn between those watching illegal streams and the victims of cybercrime.
Users can be hacked or have devices infected by viruses. A recent report from Opentext Security Solutions indicated that illegal streams “open up a gateway for criminals to access bank accounts, commit fraud, and install malicious software”.
Not that it will halt illegal streaming. There are plenty prepared to take their chances in return for the bounty of content they can access, including any one of the 380 Premier League games played each season.
Closing those windows to watch through is the unrelenting challenge.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)
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