Free football streaming: how illegal sites keep outpacing broadcasters
From: The Guardian, Saturday 1 August 2015
As this weekend’s Community Shield heralds a new Premier League season, more people than ever will be watching it online – without paying a penny. Is this plain old piracy, or just priced-out fans taking sport back from big business? And is there any way to stop it?
We are in a poky flat in a Scandinavian suburb, without a millionaire sportsman in sight. But if things go according to plan during the next 90 minutes, we will join the scourge of the richest sport leagues in the world.
Using Windows on a cheap laptop, with only rudimentary IT skills, we are about to upload a stream of a football match and broadcast it online. I am told it is easy, and we have a step-by-step guide. We also have the anonymity of the internet. What we don’t have, however, is permission: we paid none of the £5.1bn it cost Sky and BT Sport to screen Premier League matches in the UK.
In the eyes of some pretty powerful corporations, we are pirates, stealing copyrighted content and unlawfully profiting from its redistribution. As a result, my friend is touching the buttons and he will remain unnamed. However, others contend that we are simply freeing sport from the clutch of big business and returning it to the public who most deserve it. The cost of watching the action is out of control, they say.
During the past few years, as the cost of TV rights for sporting events has escalated apparently without limit, so has the ease by which conventional broadcast methods can be circumvented. Despite the best efforts of global authorities, including the City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), the proliferation, accessibility and reliability of sport streaming sites have only increased.
On any game day in any sports league across the world, thousands of people do precisely what I have flown to Scandinavia to witness, and broadcast untold numbers of sporting events online. Meanwhile, in living rooms across the world, people are watching more live sport than ever, whether or not they have paid for it. The audience of unauthorised streams is estimated in the millions. As Sunday’s Community Shield heralds the start of another Premier League season, it’s a safe bet that more people than ever will be watching it illicitly. And as the idealists who first took on football’s behemoths find themselves increasingly hijacked by commercial operations with their eye on a quick buck, football’s black market will grow.
On 1 January, a site named Wiziwig – by far the most popular aggregation platform through which users could access thousands of streams – closed under the threat of legal action in Spain, where it was based. But other sites quickly stepped in to fill its role. Moreover, a senior Wiziwig moderator told me that they have no intention of remaining in the wilderness.
“All the Wiziwig moderators are still dedicated to our mission of a free and open internet, with free-to-air-programming for all,” the moderator said. He spoke on condition of anonymity – no one associated with Wiziwig has agreed to a mainstream press interview before – and used the language of the renegade that is familiar among internet libertarians: “All we have done and will do in the future is for sports fans anywhere in the world.”
The contention is that broadcasters are holding sport fans to ransom, and it means that this season, football stadiums will again host more than just the on-pitch duels between the nation’s top teams. The Premier League, among numerous other sports organisations the world over, will once again be forced to war against the online streamers. But if recent history offers much indication, they can hope to secure a score draw at best.
“There will always be alternative markets that will arise to provide services to consumers,” says Mike Carver, a network engineering student based in Scandinavia, who likens streamers to bootleggers during prohibition. “Cable and satellite broadcasters cling to their archaic business model that only worked in the pre-internet era. People hate restrictions and inconvenience. Online sports streams provide an open resource that doesn’t discriminate based on income and location.”
In August 2014, Carver (a pseudonym) set up a site named HTPC Guides that provides walkthrough guides for various advanced hardware and software processes, specifically focused on latest developments in home media technology. Two days after Wiziwig’s closure, he published an article listing alternative sites, which got 100,000 page views within a few months. “The goal of that page was to guide loyal sports fans towards getting unrestricted access to support their teams,” Carver says. “You will never be able to stop fans from supporting their team.”
Carver’s site neither hosts nor links to copyrighted material, but he is sympathetic to the streamers’ causes. “The UK is in a particularly weird situation because fans are screwed,” he says. “Games are not allowed to be shown on live broadcast at 3pm to push people into the stadiums, which increases demand and drives up ticket prices. For those who cannot attend the game live, they have literally no legal option to watch their team. The system is incredibly punishing to fans, who the sport should be all about serving.”
Authorities attempting to stamp out streaming tend to characterise those involved as profit-driven, organised criminals, possibly with links to even more serious crime and racketeering. But everyone I encountered who had experience of the streaming world considered that portrayal to be a gross distortion. Streamers, they say, are idealistic, computer-savvy sports fans working alone in suburban bedrooms, not terrorists or mafia operatives. They often speak in the vocabulary of the anarchist; committed to anti-capitalism rather than financial reward.
“I think authorities are just stereotyping,” Carver says. “The majority of streamers are doing it for the love of sports and ‘fighting the man’. I doubt the mafia have the desire to make large sites that put streams online for free.”
A hierarchy even exists within the streaming community, where disdain is reserved for so-called “re-streamers” – the parasites who take a “clean” stream from an idealistic “stream originator” and re-host it on another site, slathered in adverts. (The swarm of pop-up ads that assault users attempting to access streams is often the most effective deterrent for casual viewers.) Authorities, of course, are unmoved by squabbles within the streaming community, as they are by the claims of sites such as Wiziwig that they should not be regarded as pirates for merely indexing links to streams. They also reject the notion that most streamers are hobbyists, pointing to extraordinary volumes of traffic, the rash of pop-up ads, and the never-ending thirst for sports coverage.
“These are professional outfits now, getting money through various syndications, adverts, betting sites and so on,” says Tim Cooper, who has worked with the Premier League for the past decade in its attempts to stamp out streaming. Referencing a case against a popular streaming site named First Row Sports, Cooper adds: “It was rumoured that they were earning about £10m a year in terms of revenue through advertising. Gone are the days that it’s a kid in his bedroom re-streaming something from an HDMI splitter.”
In the early days of streaming, the battle against the sites resembled a game of cat and mouse through the internet, with Cooper among the original predators. What began as a manual process of seeking out infringing sites and bombarding them with cease-and-desist letters – many of which were ignored – has gradually become more automated, while streamers have grown more elusive.
Cooper’s company, Net Result, which was acquired by Thomson Reuters in 2013 and now works under the company’s Mark Monitor anti-piracy banner, has widened its focus and employs numerous disruption tactics to combat streamers. Social media channels can be blocked and ISPs can be petitioned to stop access, starving the sites of traffic. PIPCU places sites on its Infringing Website List (IWL) and displays a warning notice to potential users. PIPCU told me that in two months after closing one popular streaming site, five million people had seen the generic warning page.
Disruption of this kind has proven to be far more effective than attempted prosecution in the battle against streamers, not least because sport streaming sites occupy a wide grey area in the eyes of the law.
Historically, most arrests and attempted prosecutions are made under the provision of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which prohibits the broadcast of material without the licence of the copyright owner. However, in February 2012, during a case between the Premier League and a pub landlady from Portsmouth named Karen Murphy, the European Court ruled that live sporting events could not be regarded as “intellectual creations”. They were instead “subject to rules of the game, leaving no room for creative freedom”. The court decided that “accordingly, those events cannot be protected under copyright”.
Although the same case ruled that logos, anthems and commentary overlaid on to the pictures of matches were copyrightable property, the prospect of gaining meaningful convictions for illegally broadcasting a logo is slim – even without the logo-blocking software that is being developed by some streamers.
In contrast to pirated films or music, whose files sit as evidence on servers somewhere, live streams are by necessity transient; an alleged copyright infringement is there one minute and gone the next, stored only briefly in computer caches. Anti-piracy campaigners also struggle even to build a moral case against sport streamers: while it can be alleged that torrent sites compound the struggles of starving musicians and threaten cinema closures, there is little public sympathy for spoilt Premier League footballers, nor employers rich enough to fork out £150,000 a week for their services.
More significantly, almost all streamers now place their servers in jurisdictions known to be more relaxed than the UK or US in their interpretation of copyright laws, or transmit images via a third-party data centre in similar regions. “If it’s in eastern Europe, or further afield than that, having the police in that jurisdiction kick someone’s door in to protect the industry of American music, or Sky TV here, is something they’re not keen to do,” says David Cook, a solicitor who specialises in cyber crime.
Cook describes a situation in which none of the police, the CPS, judges or juries fully understand the complexities of copyright law, allowing ambiguities to enter the process at all stages from evidence gathering through to trial and sentencing. “All of those different stages pose a problem,” Cook says. “And in terms of sport streaming services, we are barely at the first stage.”
Cooper says the latest tool in the battle against streaming is a process called digital watermarking, through which a unique, invisible mark is embedded into the set-top box of every legitimate subscriber to satellite or cable channels. The mark can be identified in any unauthorised stream and its source identified, then cauterised. “It would certainly lead to account termination of streamers,” Cooper says. “Going forward, that could almost be the silver bullet for piracy.”
Stream originators, sympathisers and users alike have another idea for nullifying their own influence: the lifting of restrictions governing online broadcast of games, coupled with a significant reduction in prices. Several sources suggested that the Premier League could enter the online market with its own channel, showing all of its matches to its enormous global audience with a low subscription fee and vast advertising revenue.
“I see a future where sites like Wiziwig are irrelevant,” the site moderator said. “When networks put all programming live and free over the internet, streaming sites – aggregators and originators – will disappear because they won’t be needed. Cable/satellite providers and broadcasters should realise this and develop new profit models accordingly.”
Back in our hideout in Scandinavia, we were busy proving just how easy the whole operation was. Our equipment worked smoothly, and Carver’s manual was meticulous. After a couple of small hiccups, we were able to email a link to a friend in London that allowed him to watch “our” stream of the Europa League Cup Final between Seville and Dnipro. The pictures were jerky and bandwidth wasn’t quite sufficient to support even two viewers, not to mention the fact that my friend could have watched it on his own TV for free.
But had we been prepared to invest further, or to make a few simple modifications to redirect a subscription-based channel, our operation would have been much the same as any that might appear on a site such as Wiziwig on a Saturday afternoon.
Carver later wrote in an email: “I think it’s fair to say that if you can do it, almost anybody can.” And with the Premier League starting again within a fortnight, it’s fair to say that plenty of people still will.