Industry Voices—Hawley: Sports resume as Washington gears up against piracy

Steve Hawley Industry Voices

It seems as if nearly every one of my calls these days ends with “…well, it’s 2020,” a quote whose meaning can be assigned to several categories. One is how this year has accelerated the commercial availability of what were previously thought to be ‘emerging’ media and entertainment technologies. Another is how many governments have been stymied by it. In the midst of all this, life must go on.

The return of broadcast sports

In the U.S. and around the world, hungry fans are again enjoying live sports on TV. It’s interesting to see how the different sports leagues have handled live broadcast. Broadcasters have the challenge to create engaging at-home experiences without being able to pan across the stadium seats for fans. Piped-in recorded stadium audio helps provide at least a semblance of stadium ambience for fans (and for the players).

New willingness to innovate

In the absence of direct personal contact among fans who can’t be at the stadium to enjoy games together, sports broadcasters and their platform providers have taken on a mission to bring a social dimension to the at-home viewing experience. 

To that end, Verizon Media partnered with Phenix to enable multi-angle viewing. Sports broadcasts with multiple views of the action have been around for decades, but until recently, the broadcaster is typically the gatekeeper of what viewers would see.

Verizon also launched Watch Together, a new feature of the Yahoo Sports app that enables a synchronized co-viewing experience with up to four people, including chat. Verizon’s first Watch Together programming partner is the NFL, which extends upon a partnership between the two companies that was established in 2017. The platform was used for the first time on September 10, with the first NFL game of the season. Yahoo is owned by Verizon.  

Verizon will use newly introduced server-side ad insertion to gain advertising revenue, and in results reported informally by a company representative, people appear to be staying longer to watch, and thereby watching more ads.

How Verizon protects it

To protect video distribution, Verizon Media combines multi-DRM technology so that content reaches only its intended audience, with monitoring to detect infringing instances of the programming outside of approved regions or originating from unrecognized URLs. There’s more to it than meets the eye: the technologies and approaches used by Verizon must align with those used by its programming partners.

New U.S. Government anti-piracy initiative

Changing gears, there’s an old expression that laws are like sausages; that it’s better to not see how they are made.  But I beg to differ: two initiatives currently underway across several U.S. government agencies are certainly worth the attention of those who are concerned about media piracy. Then I’ll tie them back to their relevance for online sports broadcast.

Modernizing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Momentum has been building to update a fundamental piece of U.S. copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. In May of this year, the U.S. Copyright Office released a report that summarized input and recommendations toward updating the ‘Notification and Takedown’ process used to take infringing distribution out of circulation. Documents submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office by the Copyright Alliance, for example, described how a large media company had to submit more than 30,000 take-down requests for the same infringing distribution website over a three-month period. Clearly, there’s room for improvement.

Improvement is possible: in Malaysia, for example, consumer visits to infringing websites were down by 64% between August 2019 and September 2020, because Malaysian regulators have put an effective takedown process in place.

The “What” and not the “How”

During September, the Copyright Office has been conducting a series of online sessions to discuss standardized technical measures (STMs) that would improve the process.   

The first of the series, on September 22, focused on legal aspects of STMs. Because technologies evolve over time, the focus was about recognizing the difference between the declaration of a standard and the technologies used to implement them.  Also, that a standard should specify minimum criteria for interoperability. Also, standardized technical measures should be available in a fair and non-discriminatory manner and not be overly burdensome to individual creators.

Then, on September 23, the series continued with discussion of current technologies and their STM potential. True to the spirit of discussing what should be standardized, and not how, there was no discussion of forensic watermarking or credential abuse. Instead, the technical side of the discussion was more about normalizing the way that rights are expressed through standardized metadata and recorded in content registries. Extending on the theme that STMs be available to copyright holders of all sizes, panelists suggested that large players like YouTube, Facebook and Amazon have the resources to bear the cost.

There also was a lively discussion of how 90% of fair use claims by creators who are notified that their content is infringing are unaware of copyright law, the intent of fair use, or even that content must be licensed; and that education would go as far as technical measures in reducing infringement.

Introducing Operation Intangibles

The second piece of government news was the announcement by the US National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) on September 16 of a major partnership initiative with other U.S. government agencies, media industry advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to launch Operation Intangibles, which is aimed at fighting piracy.

Participants include the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) and the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement which oversees the IPR Center.  Others include CTAM, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing; ACE, the Alliance for Creativity in Entertainment which also represents the movie industry; and the Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC) of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Why Operation Intangibles matters

Operation Intangibles aims to supplement HSI’s digital piracy investigations and other intellectual property rights investigations related to the mission of the IPR Center, to connect resources and enable the sharing of information across the anti-piracy community. This collaboration is similar in spirit and scope to coordination efforts between intellectual property and law enforcement agencies, regional and country-level law enforcement, local police and media companies in other countries and regions around the world.

Further details and a video public service announcement (PSA) are posted by HSI.

What does this have to do with sports broadcasting? 

Online distributors like Verizon and Yahoo – and any others – must ensure that their content suppliers communicate the copyrighted nature of their content and parameters for usage; not just contractually or in words or access granted, but also in ways that can be recognized through automation. Then, the technologies used to produce, transcode, manage and distribute the content must be able to read and enforce the rights expressed with the content. This is a challenge that generally isn’t part of an anti-piracy discussion, and perhaps it should be.

Then, when infringement occurs – when the content rights-holder finds its content in unlicensed (re)distribution or infringing use – we would expect a network of media industry stakeholders, law enforcement and other partners to be available to quickly mitigate the situation.   

Improvements to the ‘Notification and Takedown’ process should go hand in hand with enforcement. Hopefully Operation Intangibles and the U.S. Copyright Office are working together to identify clear points of cooperation and escalation processes when a request is submitted. The September announcements appear to be a good start.

Steve Hawley is managing director of Piracy Monitor, which provides news and insights about video and audiovisual content piracy, and its effects on video providers, creative professionals and on consumers. Subscribe to the E-Newsletter to receive news and updates. Piracy Monitor is active in four areas: Piracy awareness, Market intelligence, Industry marketing and Consulting. Mr. Hawley is also a contributing analyst to Parks Associates and S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.