Willow.tv goes after cricket pirates with RIAA tactics

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Online cricket specialist Willow.tv has been sending emails to alleged sports pirates, threatening that the recipients are legally liable for copyright infringement unless they sign up for a paid one-year subscription of Willow.tv’s online video offering, or alternatively pay $200 per pirated match (hat tip to Deep Backward Point.) This kind of pre-lawsuit settlement offer was pioneered during the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) pursuit of P2P users, but it’s unprecedented in the area of live sports, and streaming video in general.

Willow.tv went after a number of illegal streaming sites in 2011, and was able to subpoena some of them to unmask the identities of their subscribers. The company is now using this information to send out emails that read, in part:

“(T)he evidence indicates that you purchased at least one of the illegal streams offered by at least one of these defendants in violation of law. (…) We would like to provide you a way out of the continued exposure to liability that comes with viewing cricket matches illegally through pirated websites.”

It then goes on to suggest that cricket fans can free themselves from any liability by becoming paid subscribers to Willow.tv for a monthly fee of $14.99. The company promises to send these new subscribers a release of liability after 12 months. Recipients who already receive Willow programming through DISH or DIRECTV are given an opportunity to settle the entire claim by simply providing a copy of their pay TV bill, and sports fans who aren’t interested in a Willow.tv subscription can alternatively opt to pay $200 per pirated match, or “$1000 for a package purchased from a pirate site.”

Willow.tv CEO Vijay Srinivasan confirmed the authenticity of these emails during a phone conversation Thursday, but declined to specify how many alleged pirates his company has been targeting. He called the initiative “a very fair and reasonable opportunity,” arguing that Willow.tv isn’t just asking for settlement money without providing anything in return.

Srinivasan also said that the email isn’t meant to accuse anyone of anything, but merely point out that their name appeared in a lawsuit against a pirate site. “We don’t have any presumption of guilt or anything like that,” he said. However, he argued that the email wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.

The idea of this kind of pre-lawsuit offer isn’t new to online piracy. The major music labels sent out thousands of settlement offers in their pursuit of P2P file sharers a few years ago, and porn studios and other rights holders have been cashing in by threatening hundreds of thousands of file sharers with lawsuits ever since.

However, there are no known cases of companies using similar tactics against users who merely stream infringing content, and the fact that most alleged pirates paid unlicensed sites for the content in question makes it even more unique. Still, Srinivasan believes Willow’s legal position is sound, and he’s willing to test it in court by going after end users: “Where it is appropriate, we will absolutely see the things to their conclusion,” he told me.

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