More and more people seem to be doing away with their cable bills in favor of alternative, lower cost means of enjoying their favorite programs. The catch seems to be that without cable (and arguably even with cable), watching your favorite sports teams is not easy enough. In response to the lack of broadcasted sports, some internet users turn to the supply of live streaming sports content on the internet to fulfill the demand. Unfortunately internet based sports streaming is on the frontier of a developing legal landscape and is therefore not yet fully vetted. As a result many streaming sport websites’ legality may be in question. This article a basic primer on the subject of the legality of internet based live sports steaming, including free sports streaming and fee based streaming sports.
Due to ongoing litigation in this area, the current laws may be subject to future change. Therefore it is difficult to make a lasting definitive statement about the exact rules and penalties, except to say that violations can result in confiscation/forfeit of websites, fines and possible prison time. Arrests for this type of crime are common. The ICE website regularly posts press releases following successful arrest and seizure actions.
To the sports fans this probably seems a little unfair. However the United States (US) laws are in place to restrict the rebroadcast and/or republication of sports including via internet streaming sports websites for the protection of the country’s citizens. The basic intention of these restrictions is to protect legitimate domestic-based businesses from being deprived of earned revenue (and therefore federally taxable income) and to protect the domestic workers who are employed at those respective legal companies from being deprived of jobs due to lost revenue. These protections are basically similar to those guarding against knockoff consumer goods such as music, pharmaceuticals, software, ladies handbags, movies, etc. The sports content belongs to those entities which pay for the contractual rights to that content. Using their content in the form of fee based or free sports streaming without their permission is considered equivalent to stealing and is therefore against the law. More specifically, the US government’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) guards against global intellectual property (IP) theft such as other countries stealing US generated sports content IP and then rebroadcasting that same streaming sports content without compensation of the actual IP owner.
This may come as a surprise but a second aim of the US government is reportedly protection of the safety of US citizens. Online piracy is reportedly linked to organized crime (http://www.iprcenter.gov/). In other words by partaking in an international sport stream (apparently free or fee based), you may be either directly or indirectly funding organized crime.
In other countries where the intellectual property (IP) laws may be less restrictive and other related laws are different than those US laws, those countries’ domestic legal environments may be such that there is no penalty within that country for IP infringements that are illegal within the United States. The potential exists for the internet to present the consumer with exposure to online website based services such as live streaming sports that may be unrestricted in the country where that website is registered but not legal in your respective country.
Domestically, US laws govern both fee based and free sport stream industries operating domestically within the US. US copyright law aims to prevent copyright infringement in the form of streaming (i.e., rebroadcasting) licensed material without the expressed written consent of the license holder. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a currently shelved bill is a relatively controversial bill that has not yet become legislation but reportedly is anticipated to be re-tooled to resurface in the future. The SOPA bill is intended to augment U.S. law enforcement’s ability to crack down on online websites that infringe on established copyrights (e.g., rebroadcasting of copyrighted telecasts of major league sporting events) and on websites that traffic counterfeit goods . In general terms, the SOPA bill would include the expansion of law enforcement’s ability to crack down on online streaming sports websites that participate in online piracy. More specifically the SOPA bill would 1) prevent advertising networks and payment services from conducting business with violators; 2) prevent search engines from linking to violators; 3) require internet service providers to block access to violators; 4) increase penalties for unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content (e.g., up to five years in prison for ten offenses within a six month period). SOPA is considered controversial because it can be interpreted as a violation of free speech, which if passed could result in widespread internet censorship. Furthermore critics of the bill suggest that SOPA would bypass the protections from liability presently afforded to websites. At the time that this article was written (06-13-13), the SOPA bill has not been enacted. It is anticipated that future similar bills will be proposed.
The United States agencies that are primarily responsible for enforcement of the applicable laws include Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), US Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center). Law enforcement partners (there are too many to list) include but are not limited to: the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Department of Commerce.
This article should be considered basic information only. This article should not be considered legal advisement. Please carefully consider your actions and where necessary consult legal council before taking any questionable action. There are some obvious basic do’s and don’ts of sports streaming that may help the reader stay out of trouble and are incompletely listed as follows:
- DON’T Rebroadcast copyrighted sports.
- DON’T administer a website that rebroadcasts copyrights sports without verifiable expressed written consent of the content originator.
- DON’T administer nor use a “linking” site that links to streaming sources.
- DON’T subscribe to websites that do not accept credit cards. Not accepting credit card payment for fee based websites is a common indicator that a site is not legitimate and may in fact be a malicious web site.
- DON’T subscribe to internationally based sports streaming websites where there is any reason to suspect that the site may fund organized crime or other malicious organizations. Note: It is most likely not obvious when a site funds an illicit group.
- DON’T trust sites that include obviously misspelled words. Misspelled words are a common indicator of a malicious web site.
- DON’T trust websites where the domain name is similar to but not a match for a trusted website. Domain names can be structured to appear like a known and trusted site but in fact be a malicious imitation site.
- DO be wary of sites that are established in foreign countries where the laws differ from domestic laws on the subject of intellectual property and copyright. In some countries outside of the US the re-broadcasting of non-domestically licensed sports broadcast content may not be specifically illegal in that country. Because the internet is an international entity, what is legal in one country and therefore accessible via the internet (i.e., the world wide web), is not a good indication that the website is technically legal in your home country or more importantly harmful to the country.
- DO take the time to educate yourself on internet security. This is for your safety, the safety of your countrymen and the economic health of your country.
- DO check with the content originator’s trusted website (i.e., the sports league site) to see if the re-broadcasting website is listed as an authorized content distributor.
- DO steer well clear of legally grey areas.
Some examples of sites that reportedly have legal sports streaming arrangements include CBS and ESPN (with a valid cable subscription). These provide a place from which you can start sports live streaming legally. As this website matures, links will be added to websites that can prove to be legal sports streaming sources with both pay and no-fee content offerings. For more detailed information on streaming sports, please check the links at the end of this article. Legally grey areas do seem to exist but they are beyond the scope of this basic informative article. Experienced legal council should be consulted for those who are interested in operating in legally grey areas.