Mayweather-Pacquiao Fight Exposes Live Event Streaming Piracy Challenges

Piracy of live-streamed sports events ceased to be “inside baseball” (pun intended) for the media industry last weekend with HBO’s broadcast of the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match in the US market.  Even in the mainstream media (such as here and here), it seems that the public’s ability to watch the fight online for free in close to real time got more attention than the fight itself.

This is why protection of live sports event streams is a growth area in the field of anti-piracy technology today.  Broadcasters like HBO pay huge sums of money for exclusive rights to live sports; therefore they have big incentives to protect the streams from infringement.  Recent articles in re/code and Mashable attempted — with limited success — to explain how HBO’s stream was massively pirated and how that piracy could possibly have been curtailed.

Both articles focused on the many pirated streams of the fight that were available on the Periscope app, which allows users to broadcast video in real time from their iOS devices, and is owned by Twitter.  As Peter Kafka at re/code explained (accurately enough), it’s not possible to use fingerprint-based systems like Google’s Content ID with live event streams.  Such systems depend on a service provider getting a copy of the content in advance so that it can take a “fingerprint” — a shorthand numerical representation of it — and use that to flag attempted user uploads of the same content later.  By definition, no advance copy of a live event exists, so fingerprinting can’t be used.

Furthermore, just because a single service uses fingerprinting to block unauthorized uploads doesn’t mean that other services do.  YouTube might block an upload thanks to Content ID, but that doesn’t prevent a user from putting the same file up on BitTorrent or a cyberlocker.

However, it is possible to use watermarks to flag content.  HBO could insert watermarks into the live video as it goes out the door.  Watermarks are much more efficient to detect and calculate than fingerprints, and a well-designed watermark can be detected even if the content is “camcorded” from a TV screen.

Two things can happen with watermarks.  First, a cooperating service could agree to detect the watermark and block the content — or do something else, such as allow the content through, play an ad, and share the revenue with the rights holder, as Google does with Content ID.  Second, a piracy monitoring service could detect watermarks of streams out in the wild (including on Periscope) and rapidly serve takedown notices on the services that are distributing the unauthorized streams, meaning that the services need not do anything proactive.

Given what Christina Warren at Mashable experienced (camcorded streams appearing on Periscope and then disappearing later), the latter probably happened.  Several streaming providers and anti-piracy services use watermarks to aid detection of unauthorized copies of live streams.  In the Caribbean market, for example, Netherlands-based pay-TV platform provider Cleeng carried the pay-per-view broadcast of the fight for Sportsmax TV, and it’s likely that Cleeng used its live-stream watermarking technology to protect the content.  (Another anti-piracy provider, Irdeto, has similar technology but admitted to Bloomberg that it wasn’t working on the fight.  That leaves Friend MTS as my guess for the provider that monitored the fight in other geographies such as Europe and North America.)

It is also possible to automate the process more fully by embedding so-called session-based watermarks that contain identifiers for the user accounts or devices that are receiving the content legally — such as set-top boxes receiving HBO over cable or satellite services.  Session-based watermarks are used today with movies released in early windows in high definition, and Hollywood would like them to be used in all 4K/UHD movie distributions.

With session-based watermarks, a monitoring service can (in many cases) determine the device from which the unauthorized stream originated and inform the pay-TV provider, which can then shut off the signal to that device. The entire process would require no human intervention and take just a few seconds.

But with Periscope-style camcording, this could lead to the following interesting situation: Alice invites some friends over to watch the fight on her big-screen TV and pays the $100 fee to HBO through her cable company.  Everyone sits down, and the fight starts.  Bob pulls out his iPhone and fires up Periscope.  A few seconds later, the TV goes blank or displays a warning message about possible copyright infringement.  Alice calls her cable company and finds herself on hold, waiting behind the hundreds or thousands of other furious customers to whom the same thing happened.

Ergo I don’t believe HBO is able to require session-based watermarking to protect its live events through pay-TV providers.  The situation with live sports is different from early-window HD movies: movies have already been in theaters (where they have been camcorded), and users value the timeliness of Periscope-style camcords for live events more than their often questionable quality.

What also clearly did not happen is that HBO made a deal with Twitter to detect the watermarks and block the live Periscope streams.  As both the Mashable and re/code articles note, Twitter/Periscope experienced a ton of traffic before, during, and after the event, much of which was “second-screen” in nature, such as commentary on the fight and the fighters.  Yet Google’s Content ID showed that a service provider could be willing to detect copyrighted materially proactively if given sufficient incentive.  If the likes of HBO can find sufficient incentives — cross-promotion, ad revenue share, or something else — then the Periscopes of the world might be inclined to follow in Google’s footsteps.

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