Illegal Sports Streams: Tom Brady Does It. Should You?
The Sports Blawg with the Fordham Sports Law Forum
At a news conference prior to this year’s Super Bowl, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady mentioned that he watched last year’s Super Bowl “on an illegal Super Bowl website,” while in Costa Rica recovering from a foot injury. Brady’s comment underscored the widespread availability of illegal sports streams online, and the impunity with which fans access them.
Earlier this month, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office seized several popular websites used to illegally stream sports, and charged the owner and operator of several of those sites with criminal copyright infringement. However, the current state of the law only provides for misdemeanor charges against those who view the illegal websites. ESPN, MLB and the NFL all supported the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (“SOPA”), which would have made streaming copyrighted material such as sporting events a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. However, SOPA was not enacted and fans can continue to use the streaming websites without serious fear of prosecution.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara argued that sports fans bear the economic cost of illegal streaming websites because leagues and networks will pass the cost of piracy onto fans through higher ticket prices and subscription fees. Bharara’s argument fails to account for the difference in mindset between the paying fan and the nonpaying fan. The nonpaying fan, who streams every game he or she watches, sees no economic risk in continuing his activity, because he or she is unaffected by a rise in ticket prices. The nonpaying fan goes to NBA.com and sees that he or she cannot pay to watch an individual game online, but instead has to pay, at a minimum, for a package of 5 teams’ games for the entire season. The nonpaying fan sees Time Warner Cable not carrying MSG Networks for 48 days at the start of the year. The nonpaying fan sees the owner and operator of an illegal sports streaming website arrested and thinks, “I’ll just have to find another website to use.”
Perhaps recognizing the futility of capturing the non-paying fan market, some networks have started to offer free online streaming themselves. NBC offered this year’s Super Bowl for free live streaming (with periodic advertisements of course) and also offers free online streaming of its Sunday Night Football broadcasts; although, of course, NBC intends for the streams to compliment, rather than replace, their TV broadcasts. Last month’s Australian Open was also available for free live streaming online, but required a cable subscription with ESPN to watch the feed.
What is a greater deterrent to fans looking for illegal streams online: increasing the threat of criminal charges or increasing the availability of legal sports streams? The major sports leagues and broadcasting networks would be wise to heed the lessons of the RIAA’s legal strategy, which did not reduce music piracy and generated significant negative publicity. Instead, leagues and networks should work with advertisers to generate revenue from legal online sports streams, just as Hulu has done with television shows.
The Fordham Sports Law Forum is dedicated to bringing interesting issues in sports law to the Fordham legal community. Each week, in conjunction with the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, members of the Fordham Sports Law Forum write posts about current sports law issues and events.