Back in March last year, Steven King, Paul Rolston and Daniel Malone were jailed for a total of 17 years for selling illegal streams of Premier League games to more than 1,000 pubs, clubs and homes across England and Wales. In what was one of the more high-profile piracy cases, the three men had stolen premium content from more than 20 broadcasters around the world, making more than UK£5 million (US$6.5 million) over the course of a decade.
At the time of the conviction, Kevin Plumb, the Premier League’s director of legal services, noted that the sentences, which were some of the longest ever issued for piracy crimes, reflected “the seriousness and the scale” of the offences. He added that the Premier League’s “investment into cutting edge technology” means “it has never been more difficult for football piracy to operate in the UK.”
Indeed, English soccer’s top flight has more reason than most to invest in protecting its content. Its reported UK£9.2 billion worth of television rights contracts are comfortably the most lucrative in club soccer, but that value can be traced back to more than just the product on the pitch.
“Here, internally, anti-piracy has always been high up the list,” Plumb (right) says now, speaking to SportsPro at the Premier League’s London offices. “[Former Premier League executive chairman] Richard Scudamore was always pushing us on this, and I think that’s one reason that we are in as good a position as we are on anti-piracy, because he saw it before most other people saw it, so we’ve always dedicated a lot to it.”
It should hardly come as a surprise that Scudamore identified piracy as a blight that could negatively impact the value of the Premier League’s media rights. When he began his two-decade tenure at the helm of English soccer’s top flight, the league’s domestic rights deals brought in approximately UK£670 million. By the time he left, in 2018, that figure was well north of UK£5 billion. It would be false to attribute that growth entirely to the competition’s efforts against piracy, but the two are not unrelated.
One reason that we are in as good a position as we are on anti-piracy, is because Richard Scudamore saw it before most other people saw it.
Kevin Plumb, Premier League’s director of legal services
Today, the Premier League’s anti-piracy operation spans several departments. Plumb’s team comprises lawyers and content protection specialists, but also draws on the expertise of the competition’s broadcast division, data analysts and the communications team. Then, externally, the league enlists fingerprinters, investigators, social media experts and several other service providers to create what Plumb calls “a much more expanded unit”.
It sounds an extensive operation, but one that is necessary given the way piracy has matured in recent years.
“The subject matter has changed quite a lot, I would say,” Plumb continues. “When I first started, our focus was limited to the UK, and it was all about commercial premises.
“Over the last few years our position has changed dramatically that the emphasis has swung into the residential market, both domestically and internationally. As the internet has got better and better, and as broadband has been rolled out, online streaming – rather than card sharing and the purchase of foreign cards – has become much more serious. Then, over the last three years, even that has changed, so you go from open web viewing, to illicit streaming devices and closed networks that you wouldn’t be able to access unless you had an active subscription.
“Alongside that has been significant expansion in our service provision to a much more global enforcement programme, where we’re now undertaking activity in close to 30 different territories.”
Plumb says much of the Premier League’s anti-piracy work began with former executive chairman Richard Scudamore (right)
Perhaps the best case study for piracy’s evolution has come in the last couple of years, during which Saudi Arabia-backed piracy operation BeoutQ has been illegally streaming billions of dollars’ worth of the world’s most premium sports coverage, including plenty of Premier League games played in that time. Among other things, it is a saga that has raised the question of whether it is the responsibility of rights holders, broadcasters, or a combination of both to protect their content.
The main target for BeoutQ, which originally transmitted via Riyadh-based satellite operator Arabsat, has been BeIN Sports, the Qatari network that serves as the broadcast partner in the Middle East for the Premier League and a host of other major soccer competitions. BeIN has been quick to call out the likes of Serie A for continuing to stage its Italian Super Cup competition in Saudi Arabia despite evidence of the country’s intellectual property (IP) theft, even threatening to pull the plug on UK£390 million (US$500 million) worth of overseas rights deals with Italy’s top tier.
The Premier League, though, has been free of such criticism. In fact, speaking to SportsPro in December, BeIN’s chief executive Yousef Al-Obaidly was even keen to namecheck the English competition as an “outstanding rights holder” in both the battle against BeoutQ and piracy more generally.
“We definitely have to respond when one of our most important broadcasters challenges us,” Plumb begins, “but I wouldn’t say it has changed our approach in any way. If it’s not BeIN, it’s Sky. If it’s not Sky, it’s BT. If it’s not BT, it’s NBC. We have a lot of significant broadcast partners who we work with hand in glove on piracy.
All we want is the territory to respect IP rights and not be a dark territory for UK rights owners.
“With BeIN, it’s been: how do we have an impact when you have a very sophisticated pirate operation – that’s one of the big differences, it is very sophisticated – in a territory that we’re not used to enforcing in, and where it is very difficult for us to access the justice system? That is the problem you then face.
“To us, we need BeIN to know that we’re right there alongside them; it’s no good for us to be 100 yards back, we have to be completely shoulder to shoulder. If we weren’t reacting in a way that BeIN were happy with, then I’d be concerned by that as well.”
In terms of how the Premier League has reacted to that challenge, the competition was one of eight major soccer bodies to jointly call on authorities in Saudi Arabia to help bring an end to BeoutQ’s brazen bootlegging operation. Beyond that, the organisation has also secured major enforcement victories, announcing in October that a retailer in London had been convicted for selling illegal streaming devices (ISDs) with access to BeoutQ.
However, attempts to bring down BeoutQ have also been riddled with frustration. Plumb notes that, in the UK, it can take three years “from start to finish” to secure a conviction – whether that be suing someone or putting them behind bars – against a piracy operation. In Saudi Arabia, however, nine law firms chose not to act on behalf of the Premier League and the other soccer bodies attempting to bring a legal case against BeoutQ.
BeoutQ might now be down from Arabsat satellites, but its set top boxes are very much in circulation, and Plumb expects it to “continue to be a pretty significant work stream for a while”. Given the unique, political complexities, it remains unclear precisely how the situation will ultimately be resolved, but what is certain is that BeoutQ has become a central cog in the piracy ecosystem.
“BeoutQ essentially became a brand for reliable piracy, and then they found themselves being pirated as well,” Plumb notes. “In an ideal world all those illegal boxes in Saudi Arabia would go away. I’d like to see it be on a level playing field with any other territory where there’s a number of illegal operators in the market, so I can go there, I can get evidence of what’s going on, and I have access to legal remedies.
“If that is the case, then it’ll take time, there will be frustrations along the way, but we have a route forward alongside BeIN – like we would in the UK, like we would in the States, like we would in Singapore. All we want is the territory to respect IP rights and not be a dark territory for UK rights owners.”
The Premier League has been one of a number of soccer competitions to have its games illegally broadcast by BeoutQ
Fighting on all fronts
It is now a little over a year since the Premier League opened the doors to its first international office in Singapore, a move that was designed to ramp up the fight against piracy outside of the UK and to support the competition’s broadcasters in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.
Plumb is quick to point out that the Premier League’s APAC hub is more than just an anti-piracy operation, but notes that the proximity has given the organisation a better understanding of the varying reasons that people in different markets illegally stream sports content.
“APAC, as we see it, there is no single solution,” Plumb says. “The reason that people pirate in Singapore, in Malaysia, in Thailand, in Hong Kong, is different, so if the reasons that they pirate are different, then the best way of combatting that piracy is different. You can’t just take one size and try to make it fit all, so your expert team needs to be dedicated to a bespoke plan for each broadcaster, and a bespoke plan for each territory.
APAC, as we see it, there is no single solution. The reason that people pirate in Singapore, in Malaysia, in Thailand, in Hong Kong, is different.
“What we’re trying to do is make it a two-way conversation. We need our broadcasters in Malaysia, in Thailand, in Singapore, to be telling us about how our supporters behave, how their consumers interact with their services, how they want us to work with them. Every territory has a different nuance, so we need to be totally hand in glove with our broadcasters out there – they can provide us with local on the ground intelligence.”
That approach is already reaping rewards. In October, for example, it was announced that the Premier League – alongside broadcasters StarHub and Singtel – had helped prosecute Synnex Trading, a seller of ISDs in Singapore, and its director Jia Xiaofeng. Then, at the end of last year, the Premier League claimed ‘one of the highest damage compensations ever paid in Thailand for copyright infringement’ when one Briton and a Thai national were found guilty of providing access to illegal streams of English top-flight soccer games across Asia.
“I think we’ve had a lot of success in a short space of time, and it’s probably gone even better than we hoped it would,” says Plumb. “One of the crucial things in that part of the world is changing public perception. If you can put people in prison, or even if you can just create a stigma that what they’re doing is against the law, it will change a lot of people’s opinion. If you can get successful convictions through, successful legal cases through, then you start to create these waves of public influence.”
It’s now a year since the Premier League opened an office in Singapore to tackle piracy and be closer to its fans in the APAC region
The big picture
Spanish soccer’s La Liga has estimated in the past that it misses out on as much as €400 million per season because of piracy. Plumb, however, says that measuring the levels of piracy both locally and on a broader scale is “impossible to measure”.
Despite that, the general perception at the Premier League is that – in the UK, at least – the levels of piracy are going down. Pay-TV giant Sky Sports recently reported that its viewing figures for English soccer’s top tier were up 21 per cent, with Liverpool’s game against Manchester City in November averaging 3.36 million viewers to rank as the third most watched Premier League game in the broadcaster’s history.
Increased viewing figures can be attributed to a range of factors, but the hope is that if more fans are watching games legally, less are doing so through illicit platforms.
We want our broadcasters to think that – certainly in terms of sports rights owners – there’s clear water between us and anyone else.
“On any objective measurement that you could have, in the UK, Premier League piracy is going down,” Plumb asserts. “Premier League viewing figures are going up, and that’s what you hope goes hand in hand.
“Ultimately you can see the range and breadth and scope of activities that we do – you can always do more, but where we aim to be is the best anti-piracy organisation in the world. We want our broadcasters to think that – certainly in terms of sports rights owners – there’s clear water between us and anyone else.
“There’s so many different factors, but our job is ultimately for when our broadcast guys go into a sales negotiation, for piracy not to be mentioned.”
The Premier League is confident that piracy levels in the UK are declining