Is it illegal to stream live football matches on the internet?

Football and the Internet

The internet and football currently go hand in hand with the amount of promotion that the footballing industry gets over the internet. For example, an individual football club will be able to promote itself through its official website as will leagues and football associations. Furthermore the amount of content currently written online means that the use of the internet is an extremely valuable tool for any football fan.

However, there are certain issues with the internet which are not welcomed by football clubs or football leagues. One of which being the live streaming of football matches online.

Live Football matches online

The internet is certainly a tool which is currently being considered to be a portal to host official rights for football matches. For example one of the England national team’s recent World Cup qualifying matches in 2009 was only available in the UK online.

Was this legal?

This was legal as the Football Association (the rights holder for the England national team) had sold the official broadcast rights to a specific website rather than providing them to a television broadcaster. This has been the first high profile instance of a live football match being shown officially and exclusively over the internet and will surely not be the last.

However, it is when the rights to football matches having been sold exclusively to another platform such as television subsequently are being shown as live streams over the internet is where the issue arises.

How can live football matches be shown over the internet?

Currently many peer to peer websites enable users to view football matches live over the internet completely free of charge.

Is this legal?

It is not legal to do this as it is breach of the copyright held by the Premier League in their broadcast rights and also infringes on their ability to sell the rights to television.

Why would this infringe on their rights to sell the games to television as they are still able to sell exclusively to television broadcasters?

If games are shown on the internet the television rights will still be broadcast solely by one television broadcaster who owns the rights but it is the fact that they are available elsewhere over the internet which weakens the rights. If a television company cannot be guaranteed the exclusivity of matches which they have paid for then they will be much more reluctant to once again pay for these rights. This means that the Premier League will not be able to make as much income from selling the rights to broadcast the live matches.

Should the interests of the consumer be offset against the money making powerhouses such as the Premier League and television broadcasters?

Being able to watch football matches live over the internet is a great advantage for the football fan who is unable to afford to pay the subscription fees required to watch live Premier League football. Furthermore, it enables individuals who are out of the country on holiday or who work outside England to get immediate access to English football simply using a laptop. There is also the advantage of football fans being able to watch games played during the hours of 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday afternoon – the broadcasting of which is illegal under UK law.

This may be so but this is a clear breach of the rights held by the football authorities and bodies. Furthermore, the effect of the loss of income is not just felt by the body able to sell the rights.

What other effects will this have on the football world?

The money generated from the selling of football rights is not simply kept by the league who is the owner of the rights; it is also filtered down through to the clubs and also to the lower leagues of football in the UK. Currently it is estimated that 15% of the money made from selling television rights is filtered through to the grass-roots level of football. If the amount of money decreases then this will have an adverse effect on this lower level of the game.

Is there anything which the football authorities can do to prevent football matches being shown in this manner?

The football authorities will initially send a letter to the individual site stating that it is in breach of the rights owned by them in the showing of live football matches. If this letter is ignored it is likely that the football authorities will then work directly with the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to close down the site.

Would it be more appropriate to take direct legal action against the site?

Other industries such as the film and music industry experience very similar problems in relation to file sharing. Initially these industries took legal action directly against the websites resulting in high profile costly legal cases. As a consequence of the cost of legal action these industries have decided to work directly with the ISPs to restrict internet access and bandwidth to sites which persistently offend.

Will I be prosecuted for watching football matches online in this way?

It is extremely unlikely that the football authorities would pursue cases against individuals who watch games in this manner with the more desirable avenue to bring claims directly against the file sharing sites through the ISPs. However, despite the fact that a claim may not be brought against you participating in such a site would not only be seen as a breach of copyright, encouraging these sites to continue may have adverse effects for the very sport which you wish to watch.