With the biggest boxing match in years just days away, the fight to keep it off illegal streaming sites is well under way. HBO, Showtime, and the promoters for Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday seeking to shut down two websites that are advertising free streaming videos of Saturday night’s fight. The suit follows one brought in Florida last week by a Filipino media company against a man who it says operates an illegal streaming site in the Philippines. Both suits ask for restraining orders to stop the sites showing the fight.
The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight will be a major test of the sports media industry’s ability to crack down on piracy. The fight is expected to be the most lucrative boxing match ever—and the most-pirated live sporting event in history. And while the lawsuits are a first step, the real contest will be a spirit game of whack-a-mole taking place as the fight is actually going on. Sports pose a unique challenge when it comes to piracy. Whereas an episode of Game of Thrones will likely draw significant attention days or even weeks after it airs, relatively few people will want to watch a boxing match once they know who has won. As a result, everything comes down to what happens during a few hours on Saturday night.
The lawsuit filed by HBO and Showtime shows how difficult it is to shut down sites like these altogether. One of the targeted sites—boxinghd.net—has been showing illegal streams of boxing matches since at least 2013, according to the complaint. Yet it continues to operate openly, and a private investigator hired by the companies was unable to find out anything about its operator’s identity. When the companies tried to contact the people behind boxinghd.net, the best they could do was to send a threatening letter to a P.O. box in Panama. For the other website, sportship.org, they sent a letter to an office in Salt Lake City and a gmail account. No one from either website bothered to respond.
The lawsuit asks for Internet providers to block the websites between 8:45 p.m. on Saturday night and 6 a.m. Sunday morning. It is the first lawsuit that has been filed in the expectation of illegal streaming, according to Torrentfreak, a website that tracks piracy-related issues. Illegal streaming sites, however, are adept at popping up at new addresses once their initial efforts are thwarted. And the sites targeted in the lawsuit aren’t the most prominent destinations in sports piracy circles. Such websites as First Row and CricFree have also been advertising streams of the fight and have much larger audiences, according to TorrentFreak.
A more permanent way to shut down illegal sites it to identify the underlying subscriptions used to provide content, says Mark Mulready, security director of anti-piracy firm Irdeto.
The firm isn’t working on this weekend’s fight, but it did help combat illegal streaming of last summer’s World Cup. Over the course of the tournament, the firm says it disrupted 3,743 streams, affecting more than 10 million views. By placing digital watermarks on streams at their source, the firm says it was able to identify 77 broadcast subscriptions that were providing many of the piracy sites with their signals and to shut them down completely.
Mulready says a comprehensive technical solution is probably unreachable but also probably unnecessary. It’s enough to make it a real drag to watch sports on illicit streams.
The goal, he says, is to “make life difficult for the pirates, so they’re not generating huge incomes and a lot of eyeballs and such. We’re trying to shift people who are looking for pirated content back to legitimate platforms.”
Many people see a legal alternative as the most effective way to undermine piracy. “The reality is, if you give people an easy ability to play by the rules, the majority of Americans do just that,” says Ross Greenburg, the former head of HBO Sports who now runs his own production company. “It’s almost cynical to think that people are looking for ways to steal.”
There is, however, no legitimate way to watch the fight online, even for those willing to pay for it. Cable subscribers can buy a pay-per-view package for about $100. (People who subscribe to DISH in advance of the fight can get it as a freebie.) HBO, Showtime, and promoters for Mayweather and Pacquiao haven’t responded to requests for comment.
Another area of concern are public establishments that purchase the fight through an individual subscription and hold viewing parties where they either charge people a cover or just sell drinks. This has been a persistent issue with sporting events. (HBO recently cracked down on this kind of activity for the Game of Thrones premiere.) Bars that want to show the fight have to pay for a commercial license that can cost $5,100, more than 50 times what it would cost an individual.
One corner of piracy that people involved in the sports industry appear less concerned with are new live-streaming apps such as Periscope and Meerkat. There has been a small wave of worry that these apps serve as effective tools for copyright infringement.
Periscope, which is owned by Twitter, has quietly begun providing some copyright owners of live events with more direct lines of communications so that infringing streams can be removed quickly. But skeptics dismiss the scope of the threat from live streaming services, mostly because they are unlikely to provide compelling versions of live events. Sure, someone can point his phone at a television showing the fight, but that is unlikely to be an enjoyable way to watch. People who actually attend the fight could theoretically provide a ringside view that could be fun to see, says Ben Bennett, Irdeto’s senior vice president for services, but they also spent thousands of dollars to get that experience for themselves. “I don’t think those people are taking their iPads out,” he says.
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