Periscope Piracy Sets Up Grudge Match: Hollywood vs. Twitter

Periscope Piracy: Mayweather vs. Pacquiao Streams
Courtesy of HBO

Dick Costolo's triumphant tweet could come back to haunt him

Forget Mayweather-Pacquiao. There’s a more interesting fight brewing between Twitter and Hollywood.

The piracy of Saturday’s welterweight boxing championship enabled by Periscope, a livestreaming app recently acquired by Twitter, is setting up a conflict that could be just as brutal.

HBO and Showtime, which partnered on what will likely be the most popular boxing pay-per-view event ever, took a one-two punch of their own Saturday. First, they watched multiple pay-TV distributors experience technical problems transmitting the fight, which probably cut into their sales total.

But what made matters even worse is that countless people who did pay for the fight used their smartphones to re-transmit the fight to users of Periscope and, to a lesser extent, rival app Meerkat. Each stream reached hundreds or thousands of non-paying fans with a picture quality that was shaky and pixilated, yet still quite adequate.

If Twitter CEO Dick Costolo understood the implications of this activity, he sure didn’t show it in a tweet that declared Periscope the “winner” of the night. There’s no question the app got tremendous exposure that will build nicely off the 1 million downloads impressively achieved in just its first 10 days, a fact Costolo made sure to  mention in the company’s underwhelming first-quarter results last week.

But what Costolo needs to be asking himself is if the price of all that publicity may end up too steep if the content companies come after him for backing an app that may be piracy’s biggest facilitator since PopcornTime.

Any pay-TV channel that pays billions to sports leagues for exclusive rights to programming is going to be concerned about what went on Periscope during the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. While piracy via livestream is far from a new phenomenon, it may well have achieved a new level of visibility this weekend.

It would be one thing if Periscope was some rogue player like Napster. But Twitter has plenty of business with Hollywood that requires its content rights and advertising dollars, and the company does not have the leverage of bigger entities in Silicon Valley. Just as piracy via YouTube and Google’s search has impacted how Google and media conglomerates have dealt with each other over the years, Twitter is now heading in the same direction.

Costolo can’t plead ignorance, either. The title fight isn’t even the first time that HBO has had Periscope in its crosshairs, having issued takedown notices last month after the app became a source for “Game of Thrones” episodes. Piracy doesn’t typically trouble HBO, which has professed to be unfazed by piracy in the past; Jeff Bewkes, CEO of parent company Time Warner, once equated online copyright infringement in the past to free marketing. “Better than an Emmy,” he quipped.

Oddly enough, HBO itself used Periscope earlier in the evening to stream content from Manny Pacquiao’s dressing room via Twitter. There’s a double-edged sword here for sure: Like so many of the technologies that came before livestreaming, there may be more potential than peril to be tapped.

It will be absurd for Twitter to mount the defense that it complies with any takedown notices filed over copyright-infringing content. Because by the time the compliance occurs the livestream is already over, the company is going to need to figure out a better way to combat piracy on the fly. Periscope may require something like Google’s Content ID system, technology capable of identifying forbidden streams in an instant, and maybe even converting them to transactional opportunities for legal alternatives to the content in question.

Surely HBO and Showtime saw this problem coming. They had already filed lawsuits against a select number of notorious websites that had already been promoting illegal streams of the fight days in advance. Periscope is a cruder form of piracy but perhaps more attractive.

Livestreaming has never been treated as serious a piracy threat as torrent sites or content lockers, but that looks about to change. That said, let’s keep the threat here in perspective: While there’s always going to be some leakage for TV content via livestreaming, the amount that will go on will pale in comparison to the amount available in other forms of piracy that don’t require the perpetrator to be actively transmitting at a particular time.

Neverthless expect to hear from fearful rights holders in the coming days, and not just in boxing. The NHL has already suggested banning the app from its arenas; transmitting from within an arena (as opposed to in front of TV) is actually a separate legal can of worms. And though the MPAA and NATO haven’t shown much concern for the livestream threat yet, it’s hard to believe that equanimity will hold much longer.

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  1. Reblogged this on business cyber risk | law and commented:
    This is a prime example of the challenges that the law has when trying to keep up with evolving technology. The technology wins everytime and then we are left to clean up the mess later.

  2. Craig says:

    The issue for the cable networks is live streamed sports are the holy grail. Live content is the one thing torrents can’t do. Live sport is the hook that makes people stay and Periscope just opened the biggest chink in their cable contract armor. They can see this is the thin edge of a very nasty wedge as people start cutting the cord of their cable contracts and live stream sports over the web instead.
    Periscope is still a generation 1 product. The technology will improve rapidly as more people adopt it until it’s broadcast quality and they are trying to squash it like a bug while they can in a futile attempt to hold back the tide.

  3. Tommy says:

    @turk5555 says, “The irony is that HBO itself used @periscopeco to promote the fight, and is now pisse that their $99.95 pay-per-view ‘Fight-of-the-Century’ was pirated by @periscopeco app users. Good for them. That’s how I saw the fight. Will HBO come after viewers and try to collect $99,95 from them?” !!@@!!

  4. HankReardon77 says:

    The Periscope did not engage in piracy anymore than a hammer manufacturer doesn’t engage in death by bludgeoning. You have to hold the people who use the app in such a manner liable. You don’t sue a university either even if they have alum who have managed to cause harm.

  5. David says:

    A bit more “word of mouth” to rise value on Periscope, at the end paying the price of going out of line is cheaper than what’s worth when you gain millions of Subscribers on a Social Media frensy!

  6. stevenkovacs says:

    Did you see amateur quality ‘broadcasts’?? Shakier cams than ‘Blair Witch Project’!!

  7. Well you know, back in the day, ALL sporting events were on regular broadcast TV and the entire country was able to watch if they had a TV, antennae and a desire. Boxing was one of my dad’s favorite sports and I remember he and his friends watching many of the great bouts when I was little.If greed, both on the athletes and the network giants, hadn’t overtaken this country, these sort of sporting events would still be on regular broadcast TV for the masses to watch for free and there wouldn’t be a need for sites like Periscope. So I have zero sympathy for HBO or Showtime. Everything in this country is geared toward the wealthy and not regular hard-working people.

    • Bill says:

      What delightful class warfare nonsense.

      Since at least the early 1970s, major fights like this have been shown “closed circuit” in arenas and other sporting venues. That led, actually, to the creation of Home Box Office in the early 1980s.

      Some boxing was on regular TV, and admittedly the modern equivalent of that is now ESPN as even more major sporting events have drifted off to cable as, quite frankly, the networks can’t afford to show them anymore.

      • Mark says:

        Bill, I’m rushed now, so suffice to say, big fights WERE free, up to ali-frazier 1, then, the rich got MUCH richer.

      • Robert Claypool says:

        What exactly does class warfare mean to you? Every time I see someone use that word, it doesn’t make much sense in context.

  8. EJ Campbell says:

    Why don’t you think the twitter CEO’s tweet was a reflection of being proud of the pre-fight use of periscope as opposed to the piracy during the fight?

  9. JB says:

    How is it any different from having a bunch of friends come over to watch the fight? In the age of being digitally social, I would think it is not.

  10. s miller says:

    think this event pulled in 1.2 billion dollars on ppv don’t think they will feel much impact from a few thousands viewing on livestream

  11. Bill says:

    It’s one thing for people to show lack of respect and morality in stealing others’ content, but quite another to revel in it as Twitter seems to be doing.

    Quite sad and the pinnacle of arrogance.

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