Sports fanatics around the web had already started to notice, but today federal officials gave a full list of the sports-streaming websites they have seized in advance of Superbowl Sunday. They also defended their actions, saying that each year sports leagues and broadcasters lose millions of dollars from illegal streaming. But the sites are already back up at a variety of new web addresses, and critics of the government’s action were quick to note that at least one of the sites, Rojadirecta, was found to be legal by two Spanish courts.
The seizure is part of “Operation In Our Sites,” a series of actions by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that involve taking over web domain names that are alleged to be involved in intellectual property crimes. The operation started out with seizures of websites hawking counterfeit goods, but the seizures have moved into new territory that’s included a BitTorrent search engine, music blogs, and now sports-streaming sites.
ICE has refused to discuss the website seizures beyond prepared statements. An spokesperson from the New York U.S. Attorney’s office, which executed the most recent seizures, declined to comment beyond the statement issued today, but did provide a copy of the affidavit that elaborates on the seizures, which was unsealed by a federal court today. (The affidavit is embedded below.)
The websites seized all provided a variety of links to streaming sports content but avoided actually hosting any video themselves. Instead, the video was hosted by various so-called cyberlocker services. Cyberlockers have an increasingly prominent role in illegal distribution of content online.
In the affidavit, an ICE agent explains that seizure actions are needed to protect the copyright-holders in these cases, because the value of sports copyrights is “extremely perishable.” He writes: “Indeed, unlike other video content offered online, including television programs and motion pictures, which often remain popular well after its [sic] debut, sports fans’ interest in viewing live sporting events is greatest while the event is happening.” So even when a website acts on a takedown notice within 15 minutes, “the damage is already done,” writes the ICE agent who performed the investigation.
It isn’t clear-cut that these websites were breaking laws in the countries they operated in. Rojadirecta, in particular, was reported to have won a copyright cases brought against it in Spanish courts. And in 2009, a court in Israel deemed the broadcast of streaming sports events to be “fair use” under that country’s copyright law, as long as the streaming was for non-commercial purposes.
Another notable legal battle over streaming sports that erupted recently was the lawsuit against Justin.tv over its alleged unauthorized streaming of Ultimate Fighting Championship fights. But if federal agents continue to shut down sites on behalf of copyright owners, content companies might be able to bypass the lengthy court fights required to prove their case.
The seizures were only of specific web addresses, not of the businesses themselves, none of which appear to be run out of the U.S. Federal agencies are only able to execute these kinds of seizures because certain web addresses are under the control of U.S. companies, like Verisign, which controls internet addresses that end in .com. But some of the services behind the seized sites are already back up at web addresses not under the control of U.S. companies. For example, while U.S. agents seized rojadirecta.com and rojadirecta.org, the company has already begun operating its services at rojadirecta.me and rojadirecta.es, which ICE agents won’t be able to seize.
The full list of websites seized in this most recent round consists of: hq-streams.com, hq-streams.net, adthe.net, firstrow.net, channelsurfing.net, ilemi,com, iilemi.com, iilemii.com, rojadirecta.org, and rojadirecta.com.