With the Fifa World Cup underway and constant announcements about vast amounts of money being spent on live rights fees, piracy is still too often making a mockery of the industry, writes Ross Biddiscombe. 

When it comes to piracy, TV channels, platforms and rights holders are particularly frustrated by illegal re-distribution.

The largest-scale current tale of piracy comes from the Middle East where a diplomatic dispute between Qatar – the official rights holder of World Cup broadcasting rights for the entire region as well as North Africa – and Saudi Arabia has spilled over into Russia 2018.

Qatar’s beIN sports channel - a spin-off of Al Jazeera, the Qatari news network which is banned by many of its Middle East neighbours - thought its broadcasting deal with the world’s official football body Fifa was exclusive and included a $35 million agreement with the Saudis. However, the two governments have fallen out, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism.

Senior executives at beIN Media Group have now called on authorities in Saudi Arabia to shut down the cheekily-named beoutQ channel that has been using the Arabsat satellite since last autumn. BeoutQ made headlines last month (May) when it took beIN’s feed of the Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and AS Roma and showed the game in HD on a 10-second delay.

Fifa’s attempts to broker a deal have so far failed. A statement from the organisation yesterday (18 July) acknowledged that ”a pirate channel named BeoutQ has illegally distributed the opening matches of 2018 Fifa World Cup in the MENA region.

”Fifa takes infringements of its intellectual property very seriously and is exploring all options to stop the infringement of its rights, including in relation to action against legitimate organisations that are seen to support such illegal activities.

”We refute that BeoutQ has received any rights from Fifa to broadcast any Fifa event.”

beIN Sports’ “exclusive” MENA World Cup 2018 coverage

Source: BeIN Media

BeIN Media is reported to have lost around 40% of its subscriber base without its 900,000 customers in Saudi Arabia.

Its Managing Director for the Middle East Tom Keaveny told The New York Times this kind of piracy has taken on an “industrial scale knowledge and ability” because it needs many millions of dollars to operate. “This isn’t someone in their bedroom,” said Keaveny who has even filed a complaint with the World Trade Organisation.

Meanwhile, football fans in Egypt are watching World Cup games illegally after the Egyptian Competition Authority issued a statement saying that the country’s consumers have “a right” and made clear that it would illegally tap into the beIN feed to 22 matches in order to air them on public television. Only the UAE within this Middle East dispute has managed a deal with beIN.

Ironically with the World Cup in mind, there have also been reports of other pirates hiding behind supposedly-legitimate companies from countries such as Russia. Inevitably, therefore, all this news is head-spinning for those within the broadcasting security industry.

Paul Hastings, Executive Vice President, Global Sales and Marketing at streaming piracy experts Friend MTS says the beIN story is “an extreme example of piracy but the problem is prevalent worldwide, and demands very proactive action to contain the menace.”

Tom Keaveny

Tom Keaveny

One interesting anti-piracy strategy is being tested by Spain’s La Liga which has reportedly lost around €150 million to illegal broadcasts of its live football matches. The league is said to be using its own app to track down the pirates. A story in the Spanish newspaper El Dario said that the app was accessing the microphone on a user’s smart phone and using that to “detect if what it sounds like is a bar or public establishment where a football match is being projected without paying the fee”.

The app reportedly avoids any legal issues by including details within its terms and conditions which gives La Liga permission to turn on the phone’s microphone and even its GPS in order to reveal the location.

The disputes and the potential solutions are all part of a constant question about who should take ultimate responsibility to protect the contracted rights – the buyer or the seller – and, of course, that means it’s also a question of money. Technology moves fast so that the necessary protections have to move too and, once a feed is pirated from an OTT service or a set top box (STB), it becomes a global signal and can be made available anywhere. And, to complicate matters further, there are the streaming services like Kodi which is reputedly used by over one million people in the UK alone.

Kodi boxes began life as Xbox Media Centres with the capability of streaming live internet broadcasts. But, in the wrong hands, this wonderfully versatile and easy-to-use software, can be easily used for illegal streaming with only a few simple clicks.

Paul Hastings

Paul Hastings

So, premium content owners like high profile sports tournaments are mandating tougher security measures and the latest moves are being pioneered by companies like the British-based Friend MTS, who are watermarking live feeds and on-demand content across new and older set-top boxes, as well as OTT players.

If an illegal broadcast is spotted on an internet platform or a social media site, for example, then the company’s automated global monitoring can recognise the content in seconds, and the watermarking is used to pinpoint the subscriber responsible for the illegal redistribution. This means that streaming piracy can be shut down within minutes.

“This system is the only realistic way to combat illegal streaming quickly enough to protect sports rights during the event when they are at their most valuable,” says Hastings. “We have examples of streaming piracy of boxing matches where we have identified the offending subscribers and stopped the streams inside the first round. Watermarking, combined with global monitoring, works because it stops piracy within minutes of the start of an illegal stream.”

But there are two other sobering issues that are indirectly supporting all this piracy – the high cost of cable TV has prompted millions of people to cut off their legal feeds in recent years and there is also research that states the video-watching habits of the new, young generation of content purchasers are more used to watching pirated programming.

Sky Sports' Monday Night Football

Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football

In terms of losing customers, an Inform iTV multiscreen index has stated that the top 10 US pay TV platforms lost 1.6m subscribers in 2017 alone. Then a recent study by SMG Insight commissioned by the BT Sport Industry Awards of 1,500 people (1,000 of whom were millennials) showed that 54% of those millennials have watched illegal streams of live sports and a third admit to regularly watching them compared to only 4% of over 35s. Eighteen to 24-year-olds were also half as likely to have subscriptions to pay TV services such as Sky or BT Sport as the older group, 12% compared 24%.

Chairman of SIG Nick Keller said: “Unless we are careful we will have a generation of young people who consider pirated sports content to be the norm. That’s a significant challenge not just for rights holders, but the whole sector from sponsors and athletes to ticketholders.

“It’s in everyone’s interests, not least the fans who enjoy a quality product, to make sure that the value of sport is maintained by delivering a quality product through the best means to appeal to the audience.”

Broadcasters throughout the world are taking the problem very seriously.

In the UK, Sky has long been a relentless fighter of illegal broadcasters taking numerous cases either to court or forcing private settlements such as one bar owner recently paying out over £47,000 in damages, costs and interest. Another Sky customer agreed to pay £5,000 in legal fees after a live boxing match (which was being sold exclusively on Sky Sports Box Office at just £19.95) was streamed illegally on Facebook and watched by over 4,000 other people.

For many channels, the subject of illegal live content is so delicate that they are reluctant to talk at all, worried that they might give the pirates a clue about their strategy and, therefore, how to dodge their security measures. Yet some broadcasters believe in a less complex, top-down solution. They say an effective price point to the consumer is a key protection barrier and that if the price proposition to the consumer is sensible and is supported with high quality extras like integrated data and more editorial, then it becomes a better option than any kind of piracy.

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