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There has been mixed news this week for those that wish to circumvent the now traditional model for watching football of paying a subscription and receiving a service in return for it. On the one hand, in the United States of America the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took action against several sites that link to illegal streams of European football but, on the other hand, there was a somewhat surprising judgement today from the European Court of Justice as the Advocates General advised that pubs and bars showing Premier League football on foreign decoders was not in contravention of European law. We’ll come back to look again at today’s ECJ ruling at a later date, but this evening it’s probably appropriate to take a look at the action taken by the DHS in slightly closer detail.

On Monday, the DHS took action against several websites, of which probably the best known is the relatively venerable atdhe.net, which provide links to live streams of sports events worldwide. This method of streaming matches has proved to be popular as it often doesn’t require the clunky third party software that peer to peer streams (such as Sopcast) do. With the use of media-specific plug-ins such as Veetle, the quality of these streams has increased the quality and reliability of these streams dramatically over the last couple of years and the ability of many people now to plug computers into televisions means that the days of peering at a tiny, pixellated mess on a computer screen are now becoming a thing of the past.

The sites were seized by the DHS on Monday, although whether these site  are actually breaking any laws themselves is open to question. Advocates for them argue that they are not, because they provide links to other sites that are providing the actual footage themselves, but this is a legal grey area. “Distribution”, which linking to an illegal feed or embedding a legal feed could be interpreted as, is certainly covered by most copyright law, but the matter has ended up in court so seldom that there is no clear legal precedent for it. Usually, a cease and desist letter to the providers (for example, YouTube) would be enough for the offending material to be removed. In the case of illegal streams, however, what may be described as pre-legal threats clearly haven’t worked and the nuclear option of seixing the site has been taken.

We will find out over the next few weeks how determined the DHS is to stamp this out. It has been rumoured that the action was prompted by complaints received by Mixed Martial Arts broadcasters, the NBA and the Premier League, but the DHS response has had a feeling of half-heartedness about it. In the case of atdhe, for example, mirror sites were up and running within hours of the shutdown and the site is already back up and running on a number of different domains in a very short period of time. The question perhaps is one of whether the DHS has the resources or the willpower to go playing this constant game of cat and mouse, particularly when the streamers themselves seem so dedicated to getting the illegal streams back up and running.

In the USA, the debate took a turn for the odd as the political website Politico span the story as being somehow related to the upcoming Superbowl, which is shown live on Free-To-Air television in America. There is no substantial evidence to back this up (and the article itself, albeit obliquely, implies this in stating that, “were said to illegally provide access to content from the major professional sports organizations”, whilst, significantly stopping shot of stating that the action was take at the prompting of, say, the NHL or NFL) , but it didn’t stop some commenters from the increasingly mad extreme right-wing of American politics turning out to chastise Barack Obama (there is nothing that ever happens in the USA that isn’t directly his fault, for some people) for the decision being taken to seize these domains. Perhaps unwittingly, those criticising the actions of DHS seemed to be supporting copyright infringement, which seems like an unusual step for free market captialists to take, and there were some quite wonderful exchanges in the comments section, for example:

Person A – LOL. You have no idea what broadcast copyright means based on your statement.

Person B – I know what it means, I just think its stupid to try and copyright something thats freely available to any one with a tv, or radio.

The increasingly strange world of American politics, however, is no great concern of ours. The closure (or attempted closure) of sites like atdhe.net was always on the cards, because the illegality of streaming matches, free of charge and without the rights to do so, is not in question. The matter of where the liability for this ultimately rests, however, is a different question and there may be potential for legal challenge there in the future. Perhaps, though, the most pertinent question to ask at this point is that of whether the action taken earlier this week will actually make any difference to the illegal streaming of sporting events, and the answer to that is… probably not.

The intentions of the DHS are neither here nor there, but it seems unlikely that it will make any difference whatsoever to the volume of illegal feeds available. It doesn’t take very long to find out where a match is being streamed live and the actions of the DHS are the equivalent of applying a sticking plaster to a broken leg. We could be mistaken. They may continue to pour resources into trying to stop these sites. One of the key characteristics of the ongoing battles between the authorities and file-sharers over the years, however, has been that it has come to resemble a high-tech game of cat and mouse, with loopholes being momentarily being closed before opening up elsewhere. The enforced conversion, say, of Napster into a paid site hardly put a stop to the amount of music being illegally uploaded and downloaded, after all.

Perhaps the time has come for the broadcasters and the authorities of the game to think a little more laterally in terms of how they manage their internet coverage of matches. The number of people accessing football, whether legally or illegally, is increasing exponentially and it is probably in the best interests of everyone concerned to consider that merely making people subscribe and then pushing the prices up to the most that can be charged is simply not a model that is likely to work very effectively in the future. Whether those that would seek to keep this relatively new phenomenon under control have the nous to understand this, however, is very much open to debate.

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