The threat of signal piracy to broadcasters serving minority communities

December 2014

By Christopher Wood, Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Univision Communications Inc., USA

Univision Communications Inc. (Univision) is the leading media company serving the Hispanic community in the United States (US). Our programming services feature two over-the-air Spanish-language broadcast networks, Univision and Unimás, and a suite of cable television networks that includes Univision Deportes, the leading Spanish-language sports channel in the US. With the tremendous growth of the Hispanic population in the US over the past decade, Univision has evolved from a niche service into a leading content provider. Our flagship Univision Network is now one the most-watched broadcast networks -- in any language -- in the US.

Univision is a content creator, producing thousands of hours of national and local news, public affairs, sports, daytime entertainment, special events, music specials and other programming. But we also license marquee entertainment programming from other producers, particularly Televisa, the world’s leading Spanish-language content producer. Further, Univision licenses live sports programming such as Major League Soccer in the US, the Liga MX (the premier soccer league in Mexico), the US and Mexican national teams, boxing and Formula One.

Univision’s programming is pirated every day of the year. Signal piracy is a global and ongoing occurrence. Univision is joining ranks with other broadcasters around the world to raise awareness among international policymakers about the detrimental effects of signal piracy, and the need for a new international treaty to protect broadcast signals. (Photo: Univision Communications Inc.)

With 61 stations across the continental US and in Puerto Rico, Univision is also one of the largest TV station owners in the country. Our flagship station in Los Angeles, KMEX, is the most-watched station in the US among adults aged between 18 and 49 - in any language. Univision TV stations also serve African American viewers on their digital multicast streams, as one of the largest affiliates of Bounce TV, a television network co-founded by Martin Luther King III.

As a 21st century broadcaster, Univision delivers its programming to viewers on multiple platforms, including, the most visited Spanish-language website in the US, and UVideos, the first bilingual digital video network serving the US Hispanic community. In short, we go where our viewers go, in order to serve them the best we can.

Piracy of Univision program streams

Univision’s programming is pirated every day of the year. For years, Univision has received reports that certain cable companies across Latin America and the Caribbean have distributed its broadcast signals without permission, particularly the signals of our Puerto Rico TV stations during the FIFA World Cup™. With the advent of the Internet, however, signal piracy is no longer just a regional phenomenon that flares up during major soccer tournaments, but a global and ongoing occurrence. Univision’s broadcast signals are streamed across the world by websites that never received, or even asked for, authorization to do so.

For all its benefits, digital technology has made broadcast signal piracy easy and inexpensive. Using a home computer, a pirate can capture a television station’s broadcast signal with a simple tuner card or the station’s signal streamed on line. The pirate can then stream that station’s signal on his or her own “channel,” using one of the popular sites that enable live streaming of what is supposed to be user-generated content. These unauthorized live streams are aggregated and distributed to a much larger universe by sites that link to or actually embed them. Some of the larger aggregation sites actually provide directories of the pirated signals. Sites that host and aggregate pirate broadcast signals are able to generate significant revenue by selling banner ads, pop-up ads, and pre-roll ads that appear before those streams, which are often placed by automated systems without regard to their legality. The consumer advocacy group Digital Citizens Alliance reports that “content theft sites are making millions in revenue, at high margins, from advertising” (see "Good Money Gone BadPDF, Digital Thieves and the Hijacking of the Online Ad Business, report by Digital Citizens Alliance).

Piracy and the FIFA World Cup™

Although the FIFA World Cup™ is the most popular sporting event in the world, perhaps no one enjoys the tournament as much as signal pirates. The online protection firm NetResult has reported that, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ from South Africa, it found over 15,000 live user-generated content streams on 17 sites with pirated content (see "Update on Digital Piracy of Sporting Events 2011" PDF, Update on Digital Piracy of Sporting
Events 2011). And during the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil this year, Univision’s content protection firm reported 1,736 unauthorized live streams of Univision’s coverage of 64 matches and the opening and closing ceremonies. These streams originated on sites in at least 20 different countries around the world. Only a small number of these sites allowed us to utilize live takedown tools to remove pirated content. Univision sent the remaining sites take down notices but, despite these efforts, over 800 pirated streams failed to comply, representing almost half of the pirated streams detected throughout the tournament.

Insufficiency of current law

In many jurisdictions, if a streaming site or other distributor refuses to comply with a “take down” request, a foreign broadcast company lacks effective remedies to tackle signal piracy. NetResult has described domestic copyright litigation accurately as a “remedial tool available only in limited circumstances.” A broadcaster may not be able to bring a copyright action for an unauthorized live transmission prior to any fixation of its signal. In addition, domestic laws may not permit a program licensee to bring an action for copyright infringement when its rights are derived from a third party, as when we license the broadcast of matches in a soccer tournament. Domestic laws may be unclear. And, of course, there is no unified standard across all jurisdictions. Clearly, these are serious impediments for program licensees seeking to protect their rights with respect to live sporting events, where time is of the essence.

The importance of broadcasting

There should be no doubt today that broadcast signals are worth protecting and preserving. Broadcasting is important to our society. Our signals deliver not only soccer and dramas, but also news, election coverage, political and social commentary and important information about weather emergencies. Broadcasting helps bring the citizens of a large and diverse country together. In the US, Spanish-speaking families come from 20 different countries of origin. Univision’s broadcasts in Spanish give them a common forum and a bridge to the larger society.

Television station signals are not a natural occurrence. They are the result of significant investments by broadcasters in the creation of news, public affairs and other programming with important societal benefits. Broadcasters also invest in the acquisition or licensing of programming from third parties, which they arrange and package with their own content in creating their program schedule. Moreover, broadcasters invest in the equipment and infrastructure required to transmit that schedule as an electronic signal. If financial returns are diverted to signal pirates, then it becomes difficult for a broadcaster to continue to make these significant investments in its signal. The loss of licensing revenue does not just hurt the broadcast organization, but everyone else in the supply and distribution chain.

To better protect our rights, Univision has joined with broadcasters and broadcast associations from around the world. We are a member of the Ibero-American Broadcasting Alliance for Intellectual Property (ARIPI), made up of Spanish language broadcasters from North, Central and South America and Europe. We are also a member of the North American Broadcasters Association (NABA), representing broadcasters in Mexico, the US and Canada. Working together, our goal is to help raise awareness among international policymakers at WIPO about the importance of broadcasting as an intellectual property right, the detrimental effects of signal piracy, and the need for a new international treaty to protect broadcast signals – and the viewers who depend on them.

A new broadcast treaty for the digital age is long overdue. Internationally, broadcasters are still operating under the Rome Convention which reflects the analog, black and white television technology that existed in 1961 when the treaty was concluded. While, since that time, WIPO’s member states have successfully updated the rights of authors, performers and producers under other treaties, no such developments have occurred with respect to the rights for broadcasters. Discussions relating to updating those rights have been on the agenda of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) for many years. It is time to bring these discussions to the next level, at a diplomatic conference to conclude a new international agreement on broadcasting.

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