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

Football and the internet

The internet can be an invaluable tool for football clubs and fans alike, providing as it does a wealth of information about the sport and promotional opportunities for football clubs, leagues and associations. However, although live streaming of football matches online might be greeted enthusiastically by fans, it may not be so welcome to clubs and leagues who can lose valuable revenue in this way.

Live football matches online

The internet is certainly a viable medium for showing football matches. For example, one of the England national team’s World Cup qualifying matches in 2009 was only available in the UK online.

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.

However, it is when the rights to football matches having been sold exclusively to another platform, such as television, but are subsequently shown as live streams over the internet that issues arise.

How can live football matches be shown over the internet?

Currently, many peer to peer websites enable users to view Premier League football matches live over the internet free of charge. Any site that “makes available or facilitates the availability” of rights-owners’ content without their permission is unlawful. It also infringes on a football league’s ability to sell the rights to television.

If games are shown on the internet, the television rights will still be broadcast solely by one television broadcaster who owns the rights, but if the games are also available over the internet this weakens the rights. If a television company cannot be guaranteed the exclusivity of matches which they have paid for, they will be more reluctant to pay for these rights next time. This means the Premier League will not be able to make as much income from selling the rights to broadcast the live matches.

Interests of consumers v rights of the Premier League and TV 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 football on TV. 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 to the lower leagues of football in the UK. Millions of pounds of the money made from selling television rights are filtered through to the grass-roots level of football. If the amount of money decreases, this will have an adverse effect on this lower level of the game.

What can football authorities do to prevent football matches being streamed?

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 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 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. Indeed, in 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that internet users who watch copyrighted material online aren’t breaking the law by doing so. However, despite the fact that a claim may not be brought against you, participating in such a site leaves your computer open to viruses and may have adverse effects on the very sport which you wish to watch.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.