This article was produced in association with LaLiga
In an age of multi-platform media consumption, tackling copyright violations has become an increasingly complex task for sport’s major properties.
LaLiga, which operates the top two football divisions in Spain, has adopted a particularly aggressive approach to clamping down on copyright violations in order to protect its media-rights deals with broadcast partners worldwide and therefore the future value of rights fees.
The stakes are high, with illegal transmissions of LaLiga programming estimated to be worth more than $437m (€367m) annually and rights which, since being marketed centrally by the body, have leapt in equivalent value to nearly €1bn per season from 2016-17 to 2018-19 in the domestic market alone.
“Protecting copyright is an increasing issue, not only for the sports industry, but also for the entire entertainment sector,” said Diego Dabrio, LaLiga’s International Affairs Representative of the Audiovisual and Anti-Piracy Area.
“It is of the utmost importance for LaLiga and we’re really committed to expanding resources to protect our content.”
Allocating significant resources to the fight is necessary considering the explosion of social media in recent years, allowing those who illegally distribute the content to reach a wider audience on more disparate platforms than ever before.
“The changing technology provides a constant challenge, but we are working with the DNS (Domain Name System) providers, as well as the social networks and the online video players in order to remove content as soon as possible.
“With the expansion of social networks there are new alternatives for piracy. We are trying to develop technological tools and also the legal tools required to try to eradicate copyright infringements.”
To meet the challenge head-on, LaLiga has a four-pronged strategy, focusing on legal, technological, communicating and lobbying efforts.
In terms of its approach to technology, LaLiga is widely considered to be setting a benchmark in this area.
Marauder, a piece of software that was launched by LaLiga in February 2015, has produced some spectacular results that underline the sheer scale of the task.
According to an internal report by LaLiga, the total number of reported videos online during the 2016-17 season was 157,864. However, with 154,963 of those videos taken down, a success rate of 98.16 per cent suggests that copyright violators are not finding it easy to exploit coverage of LaLiga competitions.
“Marauder detects keywords, such as ‘Real Madrid’, for example, and then finds them online or via social media, and identifies content that includes copyrighted material,” said LaLiga’s head of digital assets, Emilio Fernández.
“Marauder identifies the provider and the server and sends an automatic notification to the platform – whether it is an application, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or another – and the content is then removed.
“We have agreements with internet companies around the world and the speed at which the content is removed is much faster than it was two years ago. We are always looking at ways to speed up the process.”
As LaLiga continues to sign agreements with DNS providers, social networks and online video players, Marauder’s reach has become even more broad and comprehensive. In terms of online streaming, the tool scans different search engines and social networks, while on mobile apps it crawls numerous lists to find infringing content.
With regard to card sharing and IPTV, Marauder detects, monitors and acts, communicating with servers and those who have the power to block access to the content.
“I think that IPTV will be the most important platform for this problem going forward,” Fernández added. “Marauder is being developed to meet the challenges of fighting new forms of piracy on platforms such as IPTV, which will be a big challenge.”
On customer-to-customer websites, it searches for advertisements featuring pirated LaLiga content, providing another avenue to make life as difficult as possible for the wrongdoers.
“We send letters to the companies hosting the adverts to inform them that they are promoting illegal platforms,” Dabrio explained.
“This has been a very fruitful approach. Our studies have shown that only 10 per cent of 6,000 adverts promoting illegal services that were identified by Marauder have stayed up after our communications. This approach targets the financial driver behind the audiovisual piracy.”
Marauder also provides analysed data reports and geolocation and heat maps, providing a snapshot of where in the world the activities are taking place.
“The users are global and the servers are changing, moving to countries where proper protection is not in place,” Dabrio said.
Fernández added: “This is global. We find content that is being distributed via different servers around the world. A couple of years ago there were hot spots in the US, UK and Germany, but now they are moving to servers in other countries where it is more difficult to reach an agreement.
“We have different agreements with service providers. If we’re not able to block a specific website outside Spain quickly enough, at least we can try to block it in Spain.”
The state-of-the-art Marauder technology sits at the heart of LaLiga’s strategy to fight piracy, which has been developed as a priority since Javier Tebas’ appointment as president of the organisation in 2013.
However, detection is only part of the prevention strategy surrounding piracy, which also relies on collaboration with like-minded institutions.
LaLiga recently signed an agreement to provide free access of a specially-adapted version of Marauder, called Lumière, to the Spanish government, enabling the organisations to work together on defending intellectual property rights.
“This will allow the government to improve levels of speed and efficiency,” Dabrio said.
LaLiga – which is a member of bodies such as the Sports Rights Owners Coalition and La Alianza, the Latin America-based Alliance Against Pay-TV Piracy – also has partnerships in place with numerous other bodies, including the US government and the European Commission, in an attempt to tighten any loopholes that exist across the globe.
Additionally, the league works with other sports leagues, adopting a leading role in the knowledge-transfer process required to encourage a holistic approach to tackling piracy.
“Even when we are dealing with a company or organisation that is a competitor, our focus is on improving the communication channels to report the information, so it is easier to identify live content and the alerts can be processed more quickly,” Dabrio added.
Forging closer relationships with broadcasters is also seen as an essential step in the ongoing battle to protect content.
Last year, LaLiga launched its LaLiga Global Network, an initiative that places LaLiga employees in various countries around the world. So far, LaLiga Global Network delegates have been dispatched to 36 countries, where they build local relationships with broadcasters, governments, sports organisations. Through the Global Network, LaLiga is also learning about viewing habits in many corners of the world.
“Establishing this network is very important when it comes to fighting piracy as it provides us with a complete picture,” Dabrio explained.
“By visiting these countries, we retrieve very important information about how piracy is affecting those territories and perhaps get a better idea of the challenges that lie ahead.
“We work very closely with broadcasters to engage them and we’re not looking for a typical client-provider relationship with them; it’s a partnership.”
The role of Marauder in gathering data and information is not only important for identifying copyright violations at short notice and filing complaints with the relevant platform providers; it is also vital when it comes to taking legal action.
“There have been close to 50 prosecutions so far and most have ended successfully,” Dabrio said. “Marauder provides proof for the legal team as it offers the tools to make a case.
“In the past, one of the problems we had was being able to provide thorough information when we filed a case. Now we have this tool, though, and Lumière will do the same for the government.”
To illustrate the impact of Marauder, LaLiga’s high-profile case against Rojadirecta – which led to the website being shut down and its parent company being ordered to pay damages to the league – relied greatly on information gathered by the technology.
“With the Rojadirecta case, Marauder provided all of the proof and data that we needed,” Fernández added. “Rojadirecta was a popular platform for accessing illegal content, so it was a very positive outcome for us.”
Legal reforms on IP regulation and the Spanish Criminal Code in relation to IP offences came into force in January and July 2015 respectively, strengthening the legal framework to bring copyright infringers to justice.
However, challenges remain for those on the right side of the law.
“Significant advances have been made to provide the nimble legal process that will allow a quick and permanent block, but of course the situations are different in other countries” Dabrio said.
“In this country, the government is working very hard on these matters, but the process through the courts is not quick.”
Whilst LaLiga is doing everything it can to protect its rights through technological, collaborative and legal avenues, educating the public about watching content that is being shown illegally is also crucial.
With that in mind, LaLiga has launched several awareness campaigns with the goal of pressing home the message that copyright theft is wrong and counter-productive – for the fans, as well as the league and its clubs.
“Communication is a crucial factor to educate the current generation and future generations,” Dabrio added.
“Last year we launched a campaign entitled ‘When piracy appears, football disappears’, in which the players on the screen were gradually blocked out by images.
“We try to send a message to fans that watching football on illegal platforms damages Spanish football’s sustainability and also puts the growth models of our clubs at risk.”
With close to a 100-per-cent success rate in removing illegal videos and an increasingly forceful stance in the courts, LaLiga is leading the charge against piracy, providing a model for success and lessons that other sports event operators can ill afford to ignore.
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