Meet the Member: “Fighting piracy is a bit like a game of Whack-a-Mole”
March 15, 2023
Piracy is an uphill battle for rights holders. To find out how the Sports Rights Owners Coalition is trying to fight it we sent our Content Manager, Alex Brinton, to speak to Mark Lichtenhein, the coalition’s Chairman.
Mark, briefly explain what it is that the Sports Rights Owners Coalition do and your role within that?
The coalition has been in existence for coming up to 20 years. I got involved right at the start when I was working for the European Tour, or as it is now called the DP World Tour. It was created because we understood that despite competing for some things like sponsorship and TV contracts we had many common challenges – and the protection of our underlying intellectual property rights was the most important.
I think the best way to look at it is a sports trade body. It is the only body that represents sport as a whole out there. Over the last 20 years we have gone from a handful of UK sports into a global organisation representing between 50 and 60. It is still predominantly European but we now have representatives from the US and Asia. The issues have changed over the years but the mission hasn’t.
For my sins, I was elected chairman of the coalition eight years ago, so I am in my fourth term at the moment. As you pointed out piracy is the hot topic of the day and has really brought the coalition closer together than ever before.
Piracy is obviously the biggest challenge facing Sports Rights Owners at the moment, how has that battle changed as we have moved from TV to digital?
Yes, it has changed a lot over the last few years. In the early days it was more down to card and password sharing. The big change is actually the increase in quality of digital retransmission getting so much better.
In the early days, when you were relying on dial up internet it wasn’t really a problem but with the broadband you can get now, you are able to watch sport in 4K over the internet. So for the pirates the retransmission possibilities have become much, much greater and obviously with that more lucrative. That is what has turned this into a multi-billion dollar illegal market that is incredibly difficult to police.
The unique challenge with sport is that the value is concentrated in the live experience. So for a pirate it is really easy to extract value in a two-hour football or rugby match because it takes some time for the anti-piracy wheels to come into motion. That has been our main task over the past few years is to get an immediate solution to these problems that sport specifically faces.
Are any of the rights holders finding success in the battle against piracy, who are they and what are they doing?
Football is obviously the most lucrative sport so they have led the way in terms of anti-piracy measures. I think a lot of them have done fantastic jobs in their own geographies of identifying the bad actors and platforms where the content is being carried.
The first thing is identifying where the pirates are operating from and we are getting fairly good at that. Between us we are sending out millions of ‘Take Down’ notices every year. The real problem is though that there is no obligation for people to actually take action on these notices during the time of transmission. At a European level we have this notion of expeditious removal – but that isn’t a time frame so it is really hard to police.
We do have some legal precedent though, that comes from the ECATEL case in The Netherlands that ruled that an illegal stream needs to be taken within 30 minutes. Again this isn’t ideal but it is something.
The issue is how 30 minutes translates for different sports so for a football match it is a third of the game, for a boxing fight it could be over already, whereas with longer sports like golf or cricket 30 minutes isn’t as critical..
You come from a tech background, can tech provide an answer to this problem?
Well tech has already provided a lot of the tools we use, certainly in the identification and discovery stage of the process. Particularly on a political level because watermarking, fingerprinting and the ability to actually track where the signal is actually coming from.
We actually have legal certainty that our content has been stolen and retransmitted, which is really important when it comes to policy making. Everybody knows about the content that social media companies need to have taken down with hate speech, misinformation and alternative facts, what’s different with our case is that we have real proof that our content is stolen.
In short the technology is providing the tools, but it is just the application that needs to improve and the politics around it.
You spend a lot of your time lobbying for new piracy legislation in Europe, why is this so slow and what could new legislation really look like?
Well as I say one of the issues is that we get put into the same box as the removal of harmful content and we have just spoken about how that causes us problems. I think the bigger hurdle though is that the piracy ecosystem is extremely complex and hard to understand.
If you’re a politician that has not studied anything to do with software engineering then getting your head around IP address and DNS blocking then it can be hard, these aren’t things that typically fall into your daily remit.
I also think that at a political level there is this notion that sport should be freely available to all, which from our side doesn’t make a great deal of sense. So getting our point of view across takes a bit of time. There is also a massive misrepresentation of what Pay TV has done for sports to make the coverage so much more compelling.
Golf is the sport I have been involved in for most of my life and if you look at the way that used to be covered and compare it to now, it is so different. You used to only be able to watch the majors and not even in their entirety and now you can watch practically every shot of all the majors if you want and probably around 30 hours of content a week from regular tournaments.
This sort of production comes at massive cost. There is no way of getting around that, people forget that the prices people pay for TV subscriptions are not just to make money, they are to cover their own costs as well. There is also the return to the athletes and that then filters down to the grassroots of their respective sports
I also think policy makers struggle to understand the value of the live broadcast as well, we have to move quickly or there isn’t a great deal of point in removing content once the event has finished.
Can European legislation truly fix a global problem?
Well obviously not, but having clear pan-European legislation can go a long way towards it. We had similar problems in China, when copyright wasn’t viewed in the same way that we did in the West. That wasn’t a reason for giving up on copyright, it was an opportunity to educate China and now we have seen massive changes in their approach. But to bring it back to piracy, we have to get it right in Europe first before we can transfer a policy to the rest of the world.
Also due to bandwidth limitations and from the data our members have we know that the majority of the piracy that is being consumed in Europe is coming from Europe.
We know that piracy is costing rights owners money, but does stopping piracy have a price tag?
The thing about piracy is that it is something that you can never truly stop. It is a bit like a game of Whack-A-Mole. What I will go back to though is the value of the live experience that sport holds. If you’re watching pirated content then there needs to be a significant risk that you will only get to see the beginning because it will get taken down. This makes it a lot less attractive for viewers to watch. We need to be able to disrupt the system as quickly as possible. It isn’t the case for all but I don’t think pirates would be able to sell many subscriptions if their illegal streams were unreliable and unwatchable.
There was an independent study conducted by Ampere Analysis a couple of years ago that estimated that the piracy market is worth around half of the legitimate rights market. So that would make it worth $26 billion with the legitimate market being worth $52 billion. Even if that is out by 10 or 20% that is still a massive market. This has even caused issues in certain countries in relation to rights renewals where piracy is prevalent. And major rights holders get up to 80% of their income from media rights sales, so if that legitimate market is significantly undermined it has the potential to change the way sport is financed.
So in short, there’s a lot at stake here.