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On April 29, boxer Anthony Joshua fought Wladimir Klitschko in a highly anticipated bout at London’s Wembley Stadium. Like all major boxing matches, Joshua vs. Klitschko was broadcast on pay-per-view (PPV) services around the world, but some viewers elected not to pay for the match at all: They watched via illegal live streams on Facebook.

Facebook needs to respond to piracy on its platform before it is forced to

The use of Facebook Live for piracy presents sports broadcasters with a significant problem, in that piracy is now easier than ever before. Links were being shared via Facebook Messenger and on news feeds, so would-be pirates didn’t even have to search for a pirated stream. It was being delivered directly to them. Ironically, Facebook’s obsession with getting users to watch live videos might have actually meant that streams were placed more prominently on users’ news feeds.

This is not the first time that sports content has been streamed illegally using Facebook’s platform. PPV boxing has been streamed a number of times, with one Australian boxing stream featuring the sounds of the infringer being told by Foxtel over the phone to cease and desist. Premier League soccer games are also being streamed via Facebook Live and other live streaming platforms.

This is a bigger issue for Facebook than it might appear. Sports rights cost billions of dollars a year, and broadcasters zealously guard their rights. And while Facebook was taking down streams of Saturday’s fight that had around 40,000 viewers, this Ovum analyst saw one stream that had attracted over 260,000 viewers before it was blocked.

Broadcasters too are active in blocking streamers, with Sky using the on-screen viewing card number to switch off programming for infringers. And with so much information available about streamers on Facebook, broadcasters don’t even have to rely on on-screen information to switch off an infringer’s television service.

Despite the efforts of Facebook and broadcasters, blocking the streams was like playing a game of whack-a-mole. It was perfectly possible for would-be pirates to view the entire fight via Facebook, even if they had to switch streams a number of times.

Facebook urgently needs to work with broadcasters to stop this use of its platform, to avoid disputes with sports broadcasters. Current technologies that look purely at the soundtrack of a piece of content don’t work when a match might have differing commentary from tens of broadcasters worldwide. Technology based on artificial intelligence has the potential to block such piracy by searching for known elements of copyrighted streams, such as digital on-screen graphics, in the same way that streams featuring copyrighted music are blocked on a number of streaming platforms. This would be a harder technological channel but is entirely possible.

With billions of dollars at stake, one thing is certain: Facebook has to act of its own accord, or it will be forced to comply.



Charlotte Palfrey, Senior Analyst, Digital Media

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