With Boxing Match, Video Piracy Battle Enters Latest Round: Mobile Apps
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- May 4th, 2015
The method used by thousands of people to watch unauthorized broadcasts of Saturday night’s big boxing match might have been new, but to longtime media executives, who have led one battle against piracy after another, it was the same old story.
Technology and its acolytes always find a way to make their content free.
In the latest case, the tools used to watch the welterweight boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeat Manny Pacquiao included mobile apps, from Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope, that let people live-stream the pay-per-view bout by capturing their TV screens with the cameras on their smartphones.
But live streaming from mobile apps is just one of the new piracy headaches facing media companies. Executives are stepping up efforts to fight Popcorn Time, an app with a slick user interface that makes using the years-old BitTorrent file-sharing technology as easy as Netflix. And they are scrambling to take down websites that illegally broadcast sports and other live events.
“The challenge is technology is far outpacing the rules and regulations around media usage,” said Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research. “Media contracts never anticipated Periscope.”
Mr. Greenfield watched the boxing match himself on Periscope, and at one point posted a screenshot of his phone on Twitter showing nearly 10,000 people logged on to a single broadcast of the match.
Media executives describe digital piracy as a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole. As soon as networks and studios figure out a way to stamp out one issue, another emerges. The Motion Picture Association of America, the trade association for the major Hollywood studios, has waged legal battles against different file-sharing technologies since the early 2000s.
It has been particularly difficult for the group to stamp out BitTorrent, a decentralized file-sharing system that does not rely on any single website or software program to allow people to download bootlegged movies and television shows. Irdeto, a firm that works with media companies to track online piracy, said that BitTorrent downloads of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — the most pirated television show globally — increased 45 percent in the weeks before the show’s season premiere in April compared with the same weeks a year earlier.
Popcorn Time, created and maintained by a loose-knit global group of programmers, has made it far easier to use BitTorrent by giving it a polished interface, in which movies and television shows are displayed for downloading with official artwork.
Last week, the M.P.A.A. persuaded a high court in Britain to grant an order requiring five major Internet service providers to block access to four websites that make the Popcorn Time application available for downloading. “Popcorn Time has no legitimate purpose and it only serves to infringe copyright,” Stan McCoy, an executive at the Motion Picture Association, the M.P.A.A.’s international offshoot, said in a statement.
Netflix recently called the rise of Popcorn Time “sobering.” It pointed to a Google search trend comparing the words Netflix, HBO and Popcorn Time that showed a significant spike in searches for the piracy site, with more searches for Popcorn Time than HBO and about the same level of searches for Popcorn Time and Netflix.
Netflix has deemed piracy a “considerable long-term threat,” primarily outside America.
Television executives said they could not say whether piracy cut into business for Saturday’s boxing match, which cost $100 on pay-per-view, until they see audience numbers this week. HBO and Showtime, which jointly broadcast the fight, anticipated that piracy would be a problem going into the match.
In late April, a judge in United States District Court in Los Angeles granted a request by the networks for a restraining order blocking two websites — boxinghd.net and sportship.org — from providing unauthorized streams of the fight. Both sites had advertised the streams ahead of time, a lawsuit filed by the networks said.
An even newer outlet for video are the mobile streaming apps, services that tech companies are racing to embrace. Facebook, for example, now allows Meerkat users to broadcast streams to their Facebook pages.
The TV networks contacted Periscope and Meerkat — both of which have created a stir among mobile users since first appearing several weeks ago — before and during the fight about piracy concerns, according to two media executives who would speak only on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations with the technology companies. Some TV executives said the methods the two app makers offered to remove copyrighted material were not as responsive as those in place by YouTube, the Google-owned video-streaming site that media companies have tangled with for years.
Periscope was already on the radar of HBO, which sent takedown notices to the company last month after people used the app to stream episodes of “Game of Thrones.” While the impact of the live-streaming apps appears to be small for now, media executives are concerned about how big it could one day become.
During the boxing match, complaints immediately came in to Periscope. But unlike older platforms like YouTube and Ustream, Periscope requires copyright holders to email takedown requests, which are individually reviewed. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company received 66 requests from copyright holders and 30 of the streams were disabled; the others had stopped streaming or were no long available.
The spokeswoman, Rachel Millner, said that Periscope respected intellectual property rights, “and we’re working to ensure that robust tools are in place so we can react expeditiously.”
During the boxing match, Periscope’s co-founder and chief executive, Kayvon Beykpour, personally fielded many of the takedown requests. And on Sunday he tweeted: “Piracy does not excite us. Trust me, we respect IP rights & had many people working hard to be responsive last night (including myself).”
Mr. Beykpour also suggested that an exultant tweet Saturday by Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, had been misinterpreted.
Mr. Costolo wrote, “And the winner is…@periscopeco,” referring to Periscope’s Twitter account name.
Mr. Beykpour, who was traveling on Monday and unavailable for an interview, indicated on Twitter that the excitement was over the official use of the app before the match, not the pirated streams.
Ben Rubin, chief executive of Meerkat, did not respond to an email on Monday requesting comment about the use of his company’s app in piracy. But in a tweet on Sunday, Mr. Rubin said: “Had fun working w/ @CBS last night. We were able 2 keep both users & rights owners happy, even got a thank you note,” and he posted an excerpt from the note. Showtime is owned by CBS.