[The Viewpoint] Italian football v. illegal streams: Serie A and Google collaborate to tackle online piracy

While the topic of illegal streaming of football matches is hardly a new one, the Serie A recently provided the world with a new outlook.
[The Viewpoint] Italian football v. illegal streams: Serie A and Google collaborate to tackle online piracy

Zinedine Zidane. Kaka. Fabio Cannavaro. Andrea Pirlo. And presently, Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps the greatest footballer ever. The national top-flight football league of Italy, or the Serie A, has seen some of the biggest names in football plying their trade.

The Serie A has many teams that have inspired generations of football fans over the years – from the vintage mid-2000s AC Milan of Carlo Ancelotti to the modern day success and revival of their venerable city rivals Inter Milan (Internazionale) under the leadership of Antonio Conte in 2019-2021. As such, the Serie A remains one of the most popular footballing leagues in the world.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that football matches of the Serie A are some of the most popular illegally streamed events in the world of sports. While illegal streaming of football matches is hardly a new issue, the Serie A recently provided the world with a new outlook on the topic.

In a widely reported news development, the Serie A’s governing body had announced that it has entered into an agreement with Google/Google Italia, to tackle the issue of such sports piracy/illegal streaming. A leading sporting news websites, InsiderSport.com, had reported that the collaboration would entail adoption of ‘innovative instruments’ and ‘ad hoc’ technologies to monitor copyright infringements and against content owners, and remove applications that facilitate and allow fans to watch games via illegal streams.

In this context, Google had also announced that it has already taken down some apps from the Play Store that illegally reproduce Serie A content. It has been reported that the agreement between the Serie A and Google is one of a kind, and the level of protection afforded to the league/division will be something the world of football has not seen before.

The statements from Google and Serie A suggest that the same would entail active participation from Google to tackle the issue of illegal streaming of Serie A matches. This indeed is a move which should inspire other leagues to take similar action to safeguard their broadcasting rights and other intellectual property.

Illegal streaming in India

The issue of illegal streaming is one which has sparked much discussion within the shores of India as well. Considering the vast population of the country, coupled with an exceedingly high degree of sports obsession, India is a country with widespread usage of illegal streams. In 2019, news outlets had reported that India has one of the world’s largest concentrations of users indulging in illegal online streaming of the English Premier League. As such, the issue of illegal or pirated videos/streams has also come up before Indian courts.

In 2014, the High Court of Delhi had ordered a ban on over 73 websites which were illegally streaming pirated videos, and had also made the observation that banning specific URLs is not a good solution. The issue of broadcasting rights with respect to live telecast of sports had also come up before the Delhi High Court in the case of Star India Pvt Ltd & Anr v. Haneeth Ujwal & Ors, a case regarding unauthorised online broadcast of the tournament between India and England, for which Star India had exclusive broadcast rights for India. The Court had accepted the plaintiff’s submissions and ordered to block numerous websites providing such online streaming.

The issue also very recently came up before the Delhi High Court again in the case of Star India Pvt Ltd & Anr v. Sportstody.Com & Ors in February 2021, wherein Star India sought an injunction for blocking certain websites infringing on their exclusive broadcasting rights of the England Tour of India, 2021 cricket series. The Court vide order dated February 18, 2021, granted an interim injunction in favour of the plaintiff, which included restraining the websites from, inter alia, hosting, streaming, and/or making available for viewing and downloading, without authorization, on their websites or other platforms, through the internet in any manner whatsoever, the England Tour of India series and content related thereto.

However, it is often a task too cumbersome and unrealistic to report each and every instance of misuse of such piracy/illegal streaming to courts. Such illegal streaming websites are like the mythical Hydras: another head rises in response to one head being cut off. The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that many such cases involve past streams/misuse, rather than an ongoing illegal livestream.

Lucy Rana, Pranit Biswas
Lucy Rana, Pranit Biswas

Dynamic injunctions: A step in the right direction?

Courts in India have also embraced the concept of dynamic injunctions with respect to such cases involving illegal online streaming and dissemination of content, which was inspired by the efforts of the Supreme Court of Singapore. The High Court of Delhi in the case of UTV Software Communication Ltd. And Ors v. 1337X.TO and ors saw a case of online piracy/illegal streaming come up before the bench. The major diversion from earlier cases was the issue of websites, whilst being covered under injunction orders, coming up via other sources like ‘mirror/alphanumeric/redirect’ websites.

For example, if the Court blocks ABCD.com, the defendant/registrant may simply make available the impugned content on another domain name or sub-domain name or from another IP address, so as to escape detection and the reach of the court’s order. As such, it becomes very difficult for rights-holders to curb such online piracy, as it is simply not feasible to approach courts for each and every such subsequent infringement. While there is per se no provision for such ‘dynamic injunctions’ under Indian law, the High Court in exercise of its inherent power under Section 151 of the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC), permitted the plaintiffs to implead the mirror/redirect/alphanumeric websites under Order I Rule 10 CPC as these websites merely provide access to the same websites which are the subject of the main injunction.

Such a solution was not only a boon for the aggrieved rights-holders, but also for the court, as it would be freed from constantly monitoring and adjudicating the issue of mirror/redirect/alphanumeric websites. Under this solution, the plaintiff could simply provide an affidavit regarding any such newly discovered website, and on being satisfied that the impugned website is indeed a mirror/redirect/alphanumeric website of injuncted rogue website(s) and merely provides new means of accessing the same primary infringing website, the Joint Registrar shall issue directions to ISPs to disable access in India to such mirror/redirect/alphanumeric websites in terms of the orders passed. This would negate the requirement for filing a fresh case for the same issue.

Thus, the adoption and use of such dynamic injunctions is indeed a step in the right direction. However, regrettably, it might not be as big a step for the issue of unauthorised/illegal live streaming of sporting events. It would be very difficult to stop a live feed of a match which is being broadcasted on a newly minted domain name/website/URL at 12:30 AM or 1:30AM, the time at which many popular matches of competitions like the Italian Serie A, English Premier League, Champions League, etc are broadcasted. Thus, dynamic injunctions, while a step in the right direction, may not be able to definitively deal with this issue.

In contrast, the collaboration between Google and Serie A seems to be targeting the very core tenet of the problem in a way dynamic injunctions may not be able to replicate.

The way ahead for proactively tackling illegal live streams?

This new reported agreement between Google and the Serie A could perhaps pave the way for similar co-operation with respect to the premier Indian sporting obsession, cricket. It would indeed be helpful for broadcasters like Star India or Sony to collaborate with search engines like Google, which are used for indexing and finding out about illegal streams, rather than repeatedly approach the courts for resolution. After all, it would become quite difficult for users to find illegal streams if a search engine/indexing website such as Google were to proactively remove results pertaining to illegal streaming by employing advanced algorithms and technologies, results which one might usually get while searching for search strings such as “Serie A + Streaming + Free” before or during a live match/broadcast.

It is important to keep in mind that while courts are indeed very effective in effectuating takedowns for “past” or “old” content like torrents, live sports streaming requires a more proactive approach and monitoring, one that has to be tackled on a daily basis during matches. After all, there is little value in blocking an illegal stream after the match is over.

This issue assumes even greater importance now more than ever, with the ongoing Euro 2020 tournament, which is watched by millions worldwide. Further, considering that the upcoming new 2021-2022 season for European football leagues (such as the English Premier League, France’s Ligue 1, Spain’s LaLiga, Germany’s Bundesliga, etc) may possibly see matches held with limited physical audiences in stadiums, it is likely that the demand for illegal streaming may be higher than ever, thus evidencing the need for proactive solutions for tackling the problem.

Authored by:

Lucy Rana is a Partner and Pranit Biswas is a Senior Associate at SS Rana & Co

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