How Live Sports Piracy can be Stopped Today

It’s no secret that pretty much every live sporting event across the globe falls victim to illegal, pirated streams. This costs broadcasters and rights holders huge amounts in revenue, and it’s why protecting live sports and events from piracy is no longer a consideration for broadcasters and OTT service providers – it’s crucial.

Sports viewership is on the up across the globe. You may have seen the BBC’s record-breaking 8.5 million live views for England’s first match in the World Cup against Iran in our blog. But increased sports viewership is happening beyond the most anticipated football event on our planet.

Research by Altman Solon found that in the UK the number of viewers who watch sports monthly has increased: last year, 57 percent of respondents said they watched sports content monthly compared to 45 percent in 2020. With the UK, Italy and France showing a strong trajectory in recent years, the trend is, however, not limited to European countries: the same research found that Brazil and Columbia displayed the highest monthly viewing rates at 79 percent and 78 percent respectively, remaining high during the pandemic.

What does this mean for the world?

For one thing, it means that people love watching sports! And watching competitions live is the most popular and engaging activity for sports fans, yet to be beaten by viewing highlight clips even in our short-attention-span day and age. But this popularity of live sports comes with a darker side: piracy. Of course, the value of most live events and in particular, live sporting events, diminishes rapidly with time: not as many viewers are interested in watching a football match once the live broadcasting or streaming is over and the score is known, and this makes piracy of live events extremely valuable. 

With the global love of live sports, the urgency to deal with piracy of the events remains and the question is, what can broadcasters and OTT service providers do today? What does the process of swiftly disabling pirated content look like? And does the technology exist to support this today? 

How to protect live sports content from pirates in real-time

Content protection and anti-piracy companies have a few highly-effective methods in their arsenal to stop pirated streams while a live event is in progress, when the content is of the highest value and it hurts pirate operators the most. Content thieves are less than happy to see their quite considerable and sophisticated efforts go down the drain: cheeky fans accessing premium sports content for peanuts turn from cheering pirate IPTV supporters into angry customers when their evening with friends is spoiled by anti-piracy efforts which cut the stolen stream mid-action (how embarrassing!). So, what are these magic weapons with which pirate fighters disrupt the streams (and revenue) of pirates?

Blocking access to pirate sites

Blocking access to web servers carrying illegal content is one of the most popular forms of supply side content protection actions. It involves the blocking of access to pirate websites by internet service providers (ISPs), following legal requirements set out in a specific court order issued by a regional court. 

Blocking injunctions come in different forms, which differ in their effectiveness in combating live sports piracy. The three most typical types of blocking injunctions are

  • static
  • dynamic 
  • live

Live injunctions are the most advanced and effective, as they allow illegal content access to be restricted during the event itself. However, the adoption of the different types ranges vastly: static injunctions have already been implemented by 40+ countries globally, while live orders are being implemented more slowly; the UK has been a pioneer in this field.

If the legislation that enables live blocking orders is yet to be implemented in their region, how can broadcasters and OTT service providers operating there ensure that their live content is protected today? Fortunately, there is another tool available that prevents revenue from disappearing into the coffers of pirates – digital forensic watermarking.

Watermarking

When content is watermarked, it is traceable back to the account to which it was originally delivered, and broadcasters or OTT service providers can quickly disable any account that is used to illegally rebroadcast valuable live sporting events. This cuts off the source material used by pirates, preventing them from re-distributing it.

Forensic watermarking is of course invisible to the viewers (think user experience!), but is detectable by specialist technologies. This plays an important part in tackling sports piracy, as accounts used by professional pirates can be quickly identified, and immediate action can be taken, such as account blocking, takedown notification and even prosecution.

Broadcasters around the world have been utilising watermarking to detect the legitimate accounts that are abused to feed large piracy networks, enabling them to squash these illegal activities; watermarking is an integral part of their comprehensive content protection and anti-piracy strategy that also includes technologies such as Digital Rights Management (DRM).  

However, one needs to bear in mind that not all types of watermarking offer equally successful results when it comes to taking down live sports piracy. For example, server-side techniques such as A/B variant, are reliant on temporal sequences; the extraction of these watermarks often requires video captures of longer duration – the event may well be over by the time the infringing account is identified. 

Other watermarking techniques such as client-side (or its cloud-based variation – client-composited), stand a much better chance of delivering the rapid result required for live sports. Thanks to the QR-code type structure of this watermark, it’s enough to capture just a few seconds of video to be able to successfully extract it. Currently client-composited watermarking is the only type of watermarking available in the market that supports the aspiration of taking down piracy while the game is still on. 

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