By Sam Evans

Digital piracy remains a lucrative outlet for cyber criminals. According to the piracy tracking firm, MUSO, season 7 of HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones was reportedly viewed illegally online 1 billion times globally, almost equal to the population of China. Streaming websites have revolutionised the sharing and consumption of pirated content by allowing internet users to instantaneously view films and series online, as if they were viewing catch-up services provided by cable TV channels. Sports live streams have also provided a comparable service to pay-per-view services offered by the likes of BT Sports and Sky. Research by MUSO has shown that the UK ranks fifth globally for illegal film and TV streaming, demonstrating a unique problem facing the UK Government’s Intellectual Property Office. This article will consider how law enforcement, the creative industry and rights holders themselves can combat streaming piracy and how a collaborative approach across the industry with relevant stakeholders will ultimately lead to a sustainable decrease in piracy.

Online streaming and law enforcement in the UK: a difficult job done well

A specialised unit of the City of London police force, known as the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, or ‘PIPCU’, has been mandated by the Intellectual Property Office to police online piracy. In an interview with Sky News, one of its veteran investigators indicated that the police force has been forced to adopt new methods in the fight against digital piracy. A good example of this new thinking can be found in its ‘Operation Creative’, a landmark initiative to fight against piracy. The aim of this project is to cut off the potential revenue streams available to websites hosting illicit content through advertising: rights holders simply compile a dossier detailing the evidence against a website and PIPCU’s dedicated team will confirm whether the target entity is infringing any relevant copyright rules. At first instance, investigators will contact the infringing website and offer a chance for engagement with law enforcement and for the website holder to correct their illegal activity. Next, if the website refuses to comply, PIPCU will usually consider numerous additional intelligence options, including: contacting the domain registrar (the relevant internet body authorised to reserve Internet domain names for users on demand) to request suspension of the specific website; applying for advert replacement; or adding the suspect to the Infringing Website List (‘IWL’) database. This online portal is maintained and verified by the City of London Police unit and accessed by all the major rights holders. Furthermore, in a report published on the City of London Police website, whiteBULLET, an IP data analytics company, concluded that Operation Creative’s IWL had led to a 64% decrease in advertising on non-compliant streaming websites.

Technology firms and streaming piracy: a mixed picture

Unsurprisingly, technology companies have also led the way in developing innovative detection software which will help to accurately target, and disrupt, illegal online streams. Cisco Systems has pioneered new technology, simply referred to as Streaming Piracy Prevention, which uses artificial intelligence technology to identify, flag and block blacklisted content automatically and in real time. The technology is designed to automatically scan the streamed video to detect the source of the infringing content and will then use the video security system to shut down the source and the stream itself in the process. More importantly, this process can be conducted without any external collaboration, for example with internet service providers or server hosts.

However, this progression can be contrasted with the neglect on the part of large technology companies, like Google and Facebook, to effectively police their various online platforms. An article published in The Times in July 2017 criticised Google’s hesitant approach, with the tech giant displaying readily available links to such sites through its search engine, with some reportedly appearing in the ‘featured results’ box, as further discussed in an article posted by Incoproip.com. At the time of writing, none of the illegal sites appeared in this list but it was still easy to locate such websites when searching, suggesting Google needs to refine its search platform to avoid such websites gaining a prominent place in search results. A spokesperson for Google claimed that the recommended search results related to algorithmic problems and did not reflect Google’s stated aim to reduce online piracy. It remains to be seen whether these words will be translated into concrete action in the future.

Rights holders must also make their content easily accessible

Ultimately, content owners must continue to make their content accessible online to both delegitimise and reduce illegal streaming activities. This is borne out by research conducted by Dr Brett Danaher of Wellesley College which revealed that the decision to legally offer online access to NBC content through Hulu led to a 20% decrease in illegal streaming activity online. NBC’s well documented decision in 2007 to remove some of its content from the ITunes store led to an increase in piracy by approximately 11%, according to Dr Danaher. Consequently, offering access to potential customers through digital channels must remain a priority for content providers in the ongoing fight against digital piracy.