Using Dynamic Legal Injunctions and AI to Fight Piracy in Real-Time in the United Kingdom

December 3, 2018

(Ed. Note: The “Innovation Fact of the Week” appears as a regular feature in each edition of ITIF’s weekly email newsletter. Sign up today.)

Digital piracy continues to evolve. A growing number of piracy services are provided through media set-top boxes, such as a Kodi and Roku, which can be pre-loaded with apps to access the material. And piracy websites are increasingly offering large-scale libraries of pirated movies, music, and tv shows (which some governments are rightly ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block user access to these websites). When combined, these two trends present a particular challenge to the services and copyright-protected content associated with live sporting events, as legal injunctions ordering ISPs to block sites after the event have ended are largely useless as their value is at its highest during the live broadcast. However, the United Kingdom shows that dynamic injunction orders and the use of technology together can help combat the piracy of live sporting events through set-top boxes.

The fact that the United Kingdom is taking this approach shows how website blocking continues to spread and evolve around the world, all without “breaking the Internet.” At least 42 countries allow rightsholders to ask courts to order ISPs to block access to websites involved in the large-scale and intentional distribution of pirated material as part of broader efforts to fight piracy and improve the market for legal content online. Website blocking is never going to be the silver bullet to digital piracy; it is, however, an important tool to raise the cost and complexity for people trying to access free and otherwise readily accessible pirated material online. The goal, as studies have shown, is to shift users from pirated material to legal content, which is now readily available from many advertising- or subscription-supported platforms around the world. But digital piracy remains a challenge, as it is not static, changing with technology and consumer behavior. Thankfully, how countries use website blocking is evolving as well.

Website blocking in the United Kingdom has become more dynamic and effective since its first use in 2011. Like a growing number of countries, the United Kingdom allows rightsholders to ask that ISPs block both primary and proxy sites (where piracy operators shift their material after they realize that the primary site has been blocked) for websites involved in large-scale piracy. More recently, and most interestingly, the United Kingdom has allowed flexible and time-sensitive injunctions to prevent piracy streams of live sporting events to improve the efficacy of website blocking for this category of intellectual property.

Sky UK is both an ISP and a broadcaster that invests close to $8 billion a year in content, with a major part of this involving the rights to broadcast sporting events such as the English Premier League (for which it paid $1.6 billion). Piracy is a clear risk to this investment and service. Much of the focus of website blocking has been on users accessing piracy websites involved in disseminating illegal movies, TV shows, and music, which is a challenging target in and of itself. However, the challenge facing Sky UK and other providers of live sporting events is that they need flexible legal options to protect their time sensitive copyright-protected content.

In 2017, the Premier League (the top level of the English football/soccer league system) obtained a groundbreaking injunction from the UK High Court that targets the increasingly popular ways in which users access pirated material for the duration of the season. The Premier League initially applied for an injunction to cover all live games from March 18, 2017 until May 22, 2017. It was deemed successful, so it applied and received another injunction for the 2018 season. It recognized that piracy providers and consumers are increasingly turning to set-top boxes, media players, and mobile device apps to access infringing streams, rather than web browsers running on computers. Piracy-enabling set-top boxes are growing in popularity as they are relatively cheap and easy to use. Traditional blocking orders targeting websites will not be able to prevent a lot of infringements, because these devices do not rely upon access to a specific website in order to enable consumers to access infringing material as they can connect directly to streaming servers via their IP addresses. The servers that host these piracy services are most often hosted overseas and are thereby not subject to other domestic legal remedies, such as fines for copyright infringement and cooperating with rightsholders’ requests to take down infringing content.

To comply with the injunction, before and during a game, Sky UK analyzes network traffic in real-time (using a proprietary AI platform) to identify servers providing pirated material through set-top boxes. This proprietary algorithm cost $10,000 to develop and takes less than 30 seconds (and costs 23 cents) to run an individual query. After confirmation, Sky UK shares the details of these servers to other UK-based ISPs to block access.

Mr. Mohamed Hammady, CTO at Sky UK, said that “The result is a phenomenal reduction in pirate sites in the UK.” The real-time blocking of media box-based piracy services has resulted in significant disruptions to piracy operators, with some looking to stop streaming live sporting events. The blocks were also stopping access to a broader range of pirated material, as the servers providing pirated streams for Premier League games via set-top boxes also provide access to a broader range of pirated material, such as movies and music. While the block may only exist for the duration of the match and season, this is enough of a disruption for many consumers to change how they access content online.

What this shows is that by making access to pirated material harder, costlier, less reliable, and more of an inconvenience (by cutting in at game time) website blocking changes the calculation for providers of legal and live sporting content as they are no longer having to compete with unfair, free pirated content. This compares to the many different Sky UK packages that include the Premier League, which start at £20/USD$25 a month, which is affordable and accessible via a range of providers/mechanisms.