Football’s coming into the home – but how can broadcasters target pirates re-streaming live sports?

Alistair Cameron of watermarking technology company NexGuard discusses the growing threat of illegal streaming and what rights holders can do to protect their investments.

Football’s coming into the home – but how can broadcasters target pirates re-streaming live sports?

Last Saturday afternoon marked the return of Premier League football, as millions of fans prepared to resume another marathon, white-knuckle adventure ride through a maelstrom of fixtures, dramas and goals. Collective optimism was at an all-time high; after all, on the first day of the season, all opportunities and pipe dreams are still theoretically possible

As the common football clichés dictate, supporters up and down the UK were fully clad in their new 2015/2016 kits, wrapped up in new season euphoria and ready to watch actual football, as opposed to reminiscing over the happy memories (or bitter defeats!) of seasons past. 

As the clock ticked closer to three o’clock, the shopping high streets began to empty, as fans made their mad dash to their seats to ensure they were ready to catch the kick-offs at Bournemouth, Leicester, Liverpool and Norwich.  Some things never change.

But others do. In recent seasons, the traditional narrative has evolved somewhat. For instance, the aforementioned seats were probably upholstered with fabric, rather than plastic. The views of the pitch were probably restricted, but the temporary obstruction was far more likely to be caused by a sea of adverts, rather than an excited group of fans in the row in front. 

In fact, in all likelihood, a high percentage of these fans were probably sitting by themselves at home, test-driving a series of prospective links, each representing a gateway towards live, but certainly not exclusive, streamed coverage of the Premier League’s curtain-raisers on their laptop computers. Although it may not compare to being at Goodison Park, the living room experience is often more than sufficient for the modern day supporter. 

Illegal football streaming across a global landscape

For UK TV viewers, piracy represents the last and only option for watching football matches on a Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. Since the 1960s, the UK has been subject to a live TV football blackout between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday, with the FA Cup final representing the only anomaly. Radio commentaries, Soccer Saturday and Final Score do not cut it for the majority of today’s tech-savvy, multi-screen football audience.  

Yet piracy is a global phenomenon – and it’s not limited to a two and half hour weekly window either. The Premier League broadcasts to 212 territories around the world, using 80 different broadcasters and commanding a global TV audience of 4.7 billion. Illegal streamed content is just as likely to appear in a living room in London as it is in Lima, Lagos or Lahore. In an interview with Andy Brown for ICSS Journal, a spokesperson for the Premier League revealed that 45,000 illegal streams were successfully blocked last season. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

The ubiquity of high-speed internet services has opened up a plethora of new opportunities for service providers and content owners to deliver content on-demand to any device, at any time. Live streaming now represents the sports broadcast industry’s greatest threat and with multiscreen, it’s become the modern day hydra. 

Given the quick adoption of streaming applications, as well as the low technical barrier to use these products, consumers are taking an ever more active part in enabling content to become accessible across the globe. Although much has been done to combat the thousands of live illegal video streams, no sooner has one been removed than another five appear in its place. 

Protecting a five billion pound investment 

For football fans, the value of live content comes in watching the exclusive, ‘must-see’ moments as they happen. They want cheap and easy access to mainstream content and, while many would prefer to access content legally if at all possible, they are still prepared to look elsewhere if they are unable to do so.   

For broadcasters and content owners, the value of content can only be upheld in viewing figures, advertising revenues and sales. That’s why the stakes have never been higher. This is the final year of the Premier League’s current live TV rights deal in the UK, which cost just over £3 billion. That doesn’t take into account the total overseas rights, which the BBC reports to be worth an additional £2 billion based on the current deal cycle. This will increase further beyond 2016 – this week the Premier League announced a new deal had been struck with NBC Universal to show live games for the next six years.

From the beginning of the 2016/17 season, between them Sky and BT Sport will pay £5.136 billion over three seasons and a record number of matches will be shown. In contrast, Sky paid just £304million for the exclusive rights to the first five seasons of the Premier League from 1992-1997, demonstrating that the value of the Premier League’s live broadcasting rights in the UK will have risen almost 17 times in 24 years. 

For a sports broadcast industry that is reliant upon monetizing its content, the prospect of professional pirates re-distributing the action for free is highly damaging and potentially ruinous. 

While technology is increasingly being used to enable operators and broadcasters to improve the quality of experience and service, it can act as a double-edged sword, helping pirates to develop new forms of illegal content sharing. For example, emerging technologies like live streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat have recently hit the headlines as concerns grow that consumers and pirates are abusing the services to illegally re-stream high quality content from Pay-TV services, such as the Floyd Mayweather – Manny Pacquiao boxing match back in May. 

The question remains - what can be done to protect the sports broadcast industry from hemorrhaging the value of its content?

Using technology to combat the pirates

Traditional Digital Rights Management technology remains an essential tool for operators looking to ensure that high value content is delivered only to legitimate subscribers. However, it is not designed to prevent illegal re-distribution of content once an authorized consumer has legitimately played it. Complementary technologies such as Internet monitoring combined with takedown notices can help reduce the number of illegal streams for each piece of content illegally shared, as long as the hosting service itself is complying with Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). 

Ultimately, these measures are providing insufficient protection in the face of tech-savvy pirates. This is why the industry is increasingly deploying forensic watermarking in addition to other content protection methods to ensure that pirated content is uniquely traceable back to the source of the leak. 

To counteract piracy from the beginning, broadcasters and operators have to identify the individual viewer who has originally subscribed to and then illegally re-distributed the content – especially if is pirated for profit. By adding a unique and imperceptible identifier disseminated throughout a piece of media, that content, along with its viewer, becomes traceable. 

The importance of watermarking high value content

Digital watermarks are used to enforce contractual compliance between a content owner and the intended recipient. It provides proof of misuse and a link back to the source of a leak, pinpointing piracy all the way back to its original source by creating a unique, imperceptible and permanent identification for each video. This can be achieved either by watermarking each OTT stream or by watermarking the video decoded by each individual Pay-TV set-top-box, enabling content owners to build a substantial case against determined criminals or to warn/nudge hobbyist pirates to shut down their illegal streams. 

In terms of live streaming, watermarked content enables the content owner to identify the user with legitimate access and work with the operator to stop the stream within minutes. It also offers the opportunity to educate the casual consumer by adding an overlay message across the pirate stream. 

Forensic watermarking represents a powerful and decisive deterrent to pirates and for content owners. It’s an effective weapon, enabling stakeholders to react promptly to the illegal use of their content. With the value of premium sports sky rocketing in less than a quarter of a century, there are at least 5 billion reasons for the pay-TV industry to address this problem – and that’s just in the UK alone. 

Alistair Cameron is the European sales director at NexGuard, a provider of forensic watermarking technology and solutions for protecting media content against illicit redistribution.