By Nick Corn IV
In America, sports are a big business. A June 2021 poll done by Statista found that 72% of American adults polled self-categorized themselves as either a casual or avid fan of at least one sports team. Numbers like these are no surprise to the networks that broadcast sports. On November 18th, 2021, NBCUniversal purchased the broadcasting rights to Premier League matches for the next 6 years for a whopping $2.7 billion. The networks that make such lucrative deals obviously hope to make their money back in ad revenue and subscription service fees. However, with the cheapest cable or subscription service on the market carrying NBC Sports being SlingTV’s Blue package, costing $35 a month, many sports fans on a budget may turn to more illicit options.
So where do you find them? Those seedy links with pop-up ads that you certainly wouldn’t want other people to see. Well, they are surprisingly easy to find for many Americans with just a few clicks. Piracy data company MUSO found that in January of 2019 alone there were 362.7 million visits to sports piracy websites. A March 2020 survey conducted across 10 countries found that 51% of people who identified as sports fans admitted to using pirated streams monthly. More shockingly, of that group that consumed pirated streams monthly, 89% owned a subscription or cable tv package. While some of the consumers of pirated sports streams are the result of local blackouts or unavailability to find a game with the packages the consumer already owns, a large target of the sites that host pirated content are pay-per-view (PPV) events. When Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury fought on PPV for the World Boxing Council Heavyweight title in 2018, 300-325,000 people paid Showtime $74.99 to watch the fight. Meanwhile, nearly 10 million people watched the fight on 133 pirated streaming domains. Also in 2018, Oklahoma and Army played their opening football game of the season, exclusively available on FOX PPV for $54.99. By the time the game went into overtime, there were over 32,000 people who were watching a stream of the game filmed off someone’s phone that was hosted on the site Twitch.
So, what is being done about this? Well, in the past a popular source of streaming links were different communities, known as subreddits (or simply “subs”), on the popular social media site Reddit. Beginning in April 2018, those in leadership positions at the company started to issue warnings on infringements of copyrighted material to admins of subreddits which were home to pirated material. This includes subs such as r/CFBStreams, r/NBAStreams, and r/SoccerStreams. In the case of r/SoccerStreams, the subreddit was permanently banned for piracy while other subs have removed all linked content to avoid a similar ban, instead choosing to direct people to another third-party site which would host the links (such as SportSurge.net.) In some cases, the parties whose copyrighted content is being pirated have taken to directly suing those who host streams of such content. In 2021, DISH Network and SlingTV filed suit in Texas against pirated streaming giant SportsBay for the hosting of pirated streams on their site, seeking upwards of $2,500 in damages per viewer.
And what about you? While I am sure that such a fine reader such as yourself would not partake in illegally shared content, what would be your liability if you did? Well, in the most lawyerly tone possible, it depends. In most circumstances, many of the owners of copyrighted material are more concerned going after the people sharing the content, rather than the end-consumers. Most of this is because the governing statute, the Copyright Act of 1976, only criminalizes the copying, distribution, and performance of copyrighted material. While a potential end-user, such as yourself, would not have to worry about the distribution prong, it is likely you wouldn’t have to worry about the copying or performance prong of the statute as well as pseudo-streaming (where a buffer is created to prevent lagging) has copies that almost instantaneously disappear after consumption and you likely aren’t streaming the content for anything more than your own private consumption (as opposed to turning your living room into a theatre which you charge admission to.) While there has been a single case of the UFC suing a consumer of pirated versions of their copyrighted content, it was under a different statute—47 U.S.C. 553 – Unauthorized reception of cable service—and the verdict was the result of a default judgment rather than the result of a full trial. As Jim Gibson, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said in an interview: “[W]hether it’s illegal from a copyright viewpoint, the best answer is, probably not on an individual viewer basis.”
 See Christina Grough, Share of sports fans in the United States as of June 2021, Statista (June 24, 2021), https://www.statista.com/statistics/300148/interest-nfl-football-age-canada/.
 See Rob Goldberg, Premier League, NBC Sports Extend TV Rights Contract in Deal Reportedly Worth $2.7B, Bleacher Report (Nov. 18, 2021), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10018558-premier-league-nbc-sports-extend-tv-rights-contract-in-deal-reportedly-worth-27b.
 See Best live TV streaming service for cord-cutters, CNET (Nov. 22, 2021), https://www.cnet.com/tech/services-and-software/best-live-tv-streaming-service-for-cord-cutters/.
 See Henry Bushnell, Inside the Complex World of Illegal Sports Streaming, Yahoo Sports (Mar. 27, 2019), https://sports.yahoo.com/inside-the-complex-world-of-illegal-sports-streaming-040816430.html.
 See Sam Carp, Study: 51% of Sports Fans Watch Pirate Streams Despite 89% Owning Subscriptions, SportsPro Media (June 4, 2020), https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/live-sport-piracy-service-pay-tv-ott-platform-subscription-study/.
 See id.
 See Josh Katzowitz, Here’s The Huge Number of People Who Watched Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury on Illegal Streams, Forbes (Dec. 7, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshkatzowitz/2018/12/07/deontay-wilder-tyson-fury-ppv-buys-illegal-streams/?sh=3d09adc512ca.
 See id.
 See Matt Clapp, Oklahoma-Army OT Game Only Available on $55 PPV, 32K Fans Turn to Some Guy’s Cell Phone Stream Instead, Awful Announcing (Sept. 23, 2018), https://awfulannouncing.com/fox/oklahoma-army-ot-game-only-available-on-55-ppv-32k-fans-turn-to-some-guys-cell-phone-stream-instead.html.
 See id.
 See Joseph Knoop, Reddit is Cracking Down on Pirates Sharing Illegal Copies of Movies, Daily Dot (Sept. 23, 2018), https://www.dailydot.com/debug/reddit-piracy-crackdown/.
 See Luke Bouma, Reddit is Cracking Down on Piracy SubReddits Like NBAStreams, Cord Cutters News (June 18, 2019), https://www.cordcuttersnews.com/reddit-is-cracking-down-on-piracy-subreddits-like-nbastreams/.
 See Andy Maxwell, DISH & Sling Sue Pirate Sites For Circumventing Sports Stream DRM, TorrentFreak (July 31, 2021), https://torrentfreak.com/dish-sling-sue-pirate-sites-for-circumventing-sports-stream-drm-210731/.
 See Joe Supan, When is Streaming Illegal? Here’s What You Need to Know About Pirated Content, Allconnect (May 18, 2021), https://www.allconnect.com/blog/is-streaming-illegal.
 See id.
 See Iain Kidd, UFC has Successfully Sued at Least One Person for Watching Streams, SB Nation (Feb. 11, 2014), https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2014/2/11/5402548/ufc-won-steaming-lawsuit-individual.
 See Supan, supra note 14.
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