Since the advent of the VCR and then YouTube, the media industry’s No. 1 enemy has been piracy. But while Hollywood and the TV networks have fought one technology after another, one type of entertainment has been safe from illegal broadcasts: live sports.
That’s because fans hated waiting for illicit recordings to be posted online. Sporting events offered the rare assurance that millions of viewers would still gather at a scheduled time in front of their televisions to watch games unfold live.
Now, live-streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat threaten TV’s golden egg. Just hold a smartphone up to a television to record and stream what’s airing, and suddenly piracy is easier than ever. That stunning recognition arrived this past weekend when droves of boxing fans skipped the $100 pay-per-view fee and watched the much-anticipated match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao free Saturday evening. Dozens of live streams of the fight were available through Periscope, and even though the app shut down 30 illegal streams, users gloated about their ability to watch.
Sports leagues have so far tolerated some fan use of these apps, and media organizations say the services are not yet hurting their bottom lines. But the implications of the new technology are clear.
“This is a breaking-of-the-dam moment because everyone has massively powerful computers in their hands that can shoot HD-quality video and live stream it to thousands of people simultaneously,” said Jesse Redniss, a co-founder of media consulting firm BraveVentures. “There are major rights implications, and Periscope is treading over very thin ice because they have the ability to police the streams.”
Just one year old, Periscope and Meerkat threaten a remaining staple of the television business. Network audiences are shrinking, and even cable TV has suffered as viewers flock to online video, which is more convenient to watch but brings in far less revenue for providers. The one area that continues to thrive is live events — especially sports, where every Super Bowl or Final Four brings massive audiences.
Networks and sports leagues are trying to control the migration of viewers to digital streaming services. Baseball, basketball and tennis are already putting some of their events online. MLB.tv offers access to most Major League Baseball games starting at $95 a year. The National Football League plans to live stream a game between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars this fall.
But given the slow pace and the hefty fees associated with those efforts, fans are inevitably attracted to alternatives that are more convenient — and free. So while the quality of videos on Periscope and Meerkat are crude compared with a 50-inch HDTV, the threat is real.
Both services allow users to broadcast their own feeds and watch streams created by others. On a recent evening, former TV morning show anchor Katie Couric broadcast herself live from the red carpet of the Met Gala in New York, and the New York Stock Exchange posted a video of Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan’s visit. Other streams are more mundane, such as a student asking whether to study or watch Netflix and a woman posting a video of her husband wearing hot-pink shorts.
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred told journalists last month that he is aware that some fans use Meerkat and Periscope during games. ‘’We know it happens, and we haven’t done anything about it,’’ he said. ‘’We haven’t done it because it’s in very limited chunks of times. If somebody tries to stream a whole game from his phone, there’s probably going to be a problem.’’
Games are the property of Major League Baseball — thus the boilerplate language about telecasts being “for the private use of our audience.” Fans are prohibited from taking live video, and teams are encouraged to police the policy as they see fit.
The same is true in other leagues. “It has been on our radar. We’ll spend some time this offseason evaluating the technology and how it applies to us,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL.
Last week, the PGA Tour revoked the press credential of Stephanie Wei, a blogger who posted video of golfers practicing. Tour officials had earlier this year admonished Wei for posting video of Tiger Woods’s play at a tournament in Phoenix and said their decision didn’t have anything to do with the use of Periscope. But their actions show the challenge facing the PGA Tour to keep control over its valuable product.
Music trade groups are also debating how to approach the apps, which can make concerts or Broadway shows as readily available as sporting events.
“Yes, there is general concern that these apps could be used to commit copyright infringement,” said a music industry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the app is being evaluated by music labels. “Is it a massive problem yet? No. Hopefully Twitter and other services that employ these apps are proactively taking steps to prevent infringement from happening so that it doesn’t become a massive problem for the music community.”
What worries media organizations is how difficult it is to police the new apps. Because Periscope broadcasts live, it is harder to stop streams before users see them.
“One of the challenges now is just the logistics of managing the takedown process. . . . We’re talking about real-time activity. Taking something down in half an hour may be half an hour too late,” said Douglas Masters, an intellectual property lawyer at Loeb & Loeb in Chicago.
Media firms say the onus should be on Periscope and similar apps to police themselves.
Twitter, which owns Periscope, required HBO and Showtime, who co-produced the pay-per-view telecast, to alert it to illegal streams of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Only then did it take down those accounts.
The policy frustrates media executives, who question Twitter’s stance as it relies more heavily on hosting content from partners such as cable networks and sports leagues.
Indeed, HBO worked with Periscope for weeks on a marketing campaign around the fight. A couple of hours before the start of boxing’s most anticipated fight in years, HBO announced in a tweet that fans could watch on Periscope as Pacquiao warmed up in his locker room.
It was a marketing deal carefully worked out long before the fight, bringing together a cable television powerhouse and social media giant Twitter, which increasingly sees its future hinging on media partnerships.
That was where the relationship was supposed to end.
But once the first-round bell rang, users of Periscope, Meerkat and other live-streaming apps stayed on, finding what was estimated to be thousands of illegal streams from users who recorded and simultaneously broadcast the TV footage on their smartphones.
After the match, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo declared in a tweet that Periscope was the night’s winner.
Since then, the company has tried to dial back its bravado, noting that HBO reported 66 illegal streams and that Twitter took down 30 of them.
“We respect intellectual property rights,” Twitter said in a statement.
But critics say Twitter should focus on creating technologies that help identify material that violates copyrights, in the same way that YouTube developed an identification system that made it easier to spot and take down pirated videos.
In an interview at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York on Tuesday, Periscope co-founder Kayvon Beykpour said there are tools that can be created to help stop piracy on the service.
“Piracy isn’t a Periscope thing, it’s an Internet thing,” Beykpour said. “We are genuinely interested in working with partners to figure that out.”
He said a team of people on his 13-member staff worked to respond to takedown demands from HBO and Showtime.
But he acknowledged that the problem could grow.
“The proliferation of mobile devices and that I can take my phone out right now and stream changes the process,” Beykpour said. “But I will say the boxing match was the exception.”
Andrea Peterson contributed to this report.