MEPs look to target broadcasters, not viewers, over illegal sports content

In their latest bid to stem the high tide of pirated live sporting events, MEPs are looking at a raft of new rules that would target what they describe as “professional illegal broadcasters”, and not people in their homes

Numerous Europe-wide clampdowns on illegal broadcasting do not yet appear to have had the desired effect, at least not when it comes to live sports, and MEPs are now looking for new ways to put an end to the trade once and for all.

In their latest bid to stem the high tide of pirated live sporting events, MEPs are looking at a raft of new rules that would target what they describe as “professional illegal broadcasters”, and not people in their homes who are often unaware they are viewing what is, essentially, illegal content online.

A committee report approved by MEPs on Tuesday, which will be voted upon during the May plenary session, calls on European Commission to propose concrete measures adapted specifically for live sporting events. Such measures, MEPs have urged, need to provide for the immediate removal of illegal content, without blocking the legal live broadcast.

When content is deemed illegal and requiring removal from the airwaves, such action needs to be taken as soon as a notice to such effect is received, and no later than 30 minutes after the start of the event.

The 30-minute threshold is deemed necessary because live sports have a time-limited economic value, the actual duration of the event, which means the window for action against piracy is small.

The new rules should not, however, apply to live in-venue content, or to footage captured by a members of a crowd  as, according to MEPs, this does not infringe upon anyone’s any rights and is an “integral part of fan culture”.

MEPs have noted how live sporting broadcasts are often transmitted online illegally by “dedicated professional websites, whose business model is based on subscription fees or advertising”. The fact that 80 per cent of revenue earned by the owners of rights comes from live broadcasts, which are not protected in the same way that recorded broadcasts are, has left something of a legal lacuna between recorded and live events.

MEPs are of the belief that illegally broadcasting live sporting events infringe on intellectual property rights and could present a security risk for viewers, who could be exposed to malware or data theft, including credit card fraud.

The problem is that sporting events do not automatically qualify for copyright protection.  That is because as they are not a ‘work’ as defined by EU copyright law, although the actual recording of a sports event is protected.  In fact, some countries have introduced specific rules covering live broadcasts, but they are not harmonised at EU level.

As matters currently stand, procedures against live streaming piracy are lengthy and not immediately applicable.  As such, MEPs contend they are severely lacking in efficacy, with the EP’s legal affairs committee advising the best remedy would be the immediate termination of an unauthorised broadcast.

MEPs have, however, made it clear that there is to be no witch hunt for illegal broadcasters.  In fact, the report highlights how measures should only target illegal content so as not lead to arbitrary or excessive blocking of legal content.

The report stipulates that, “They should be proportionate, in particular for small businesses, SMEs and start-ups and allow for access to judicial remedies, including protection of fundamental rights and personal data.”

The EP’s Legal Affairs Committee chair Adrián Vázquez Lázara (Renew, Spain) explains how the specific aim is to "tackle those thousands and thousands of illegal broadcasters [who] get the signal from different sporting events across Europe and broadcast it illegally."

Moreover, since sports clubs can't currently sell tickets due to Covid restrictions, “we have to protect the only income they have left, which is the TV rights”.

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