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England’s Premier League said it will take a tougher stance on illegal streaming as the world’s richest football competition prepares for a multibillion auction of domestic television rights, after beefing up its legal team and using private prosecutions in a bid to combat pirates.
Kevin Plumb, general counsel for the Premier League, told the Financial Times that the evolution of online piracy online had forced it to adapt, building up an internal team of lawyers, investigators and “content protection analysts” to help remove illegal content and punish those providing it.
“We don’t underestimate them,” Plumb said. “They’re really sophisticated now. There is always a challenge with finding people online.”
The Premier League’s fight against piracy is especially important in protecting the value of media rights, the lifeblood of the competition and the main revenue generator for football clubs. The league is gearing up to hold the auction for its UK rights, which it previously sold for about £5bn over three years.
The UK’s Intellectual Property Office estimated in February that 3.9mn people illegally watch live sport.
A separate survey, conducted by YouGov Sport for sports media company Unofficial Partner, found that more than 40 per cent of people who use illegal means to watch live sport cited the cost as their primary motivation. To follow all the league’s games would require access to Sky Sports, TNT Sports and Amazon’s Prime Video, costing roughly £70 a month.
In July, the FT revealed that Sky had won a High Court order to force internet service providers to block pirates from illegally streaming football matches and television series. That order bears similarities to the Premier League’s so-called “Super Block”, which helped the competition take down more than 600,000 illegal live streams last season.
Plumb said this “Super Block”, as well as private prosecutions, are aiding the league’s efforts against illegal streams. Recently-announced prison sentences are another deterrent, he added.
Although fans still use free websites that rely on advertising to watch Premier League matches illegally, pirates have shifted to using hijacked smart TV devices or “sticks” and collecting subscription fees.
“When I first started doing this, our top line priority would have been pubs,” said Plumb. “There’s a little bit of that now but . . . piracy has evolved from peer-to-peer streaming to closed network subscriptions.”
“You went from the pub to the teenagers in their bedrooms to families watching in their living room, and that then becomes a real priority for us,” he added.
His comments come after five men were sentenced in May to more than 30 years in prison for running illegal streaming networks. Their illegal operations had more than 50,000 customers and resellers, and generated more than £7mn in five years.
The Premier League said it was “the world’s largest-ever prosecution of an illegal streaming network”.
“Would you want to carry on this sort of business if you’re going to get 10 or 11 years in jail?” Plumb asked.