Commentary

Content Providers Warn Of Video/TV Piracy Devices, Other Growing Threats to Global Expansion

The latest report from the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) — a group of video and other content providers — warns of proliferating piracy devices and other serious threats to copyright protections and the legal distribution of digital content. 

While the technical and legal aspects may not be enthralling, endangered copyright protections for intellectual property (IP) pose obstacles to the expansion into international markets that has become increasingly critical for streaming services, the movie industry and other content-based businesses. 

Marketers should also be concerned about schemes that allow millions of under-the-table users to avoid subsidizing--or at least providing user data -- to the media companies advertisers depend on to gain exposure via legitimate distribution channels. 

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IIPA releases a Special 201 Report each year to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR). The report examines the adequacy and effectiveness of international protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights. 

IIPA member groups include the Motion Picture Association/MPA, Entertainment Software Association, and the Independent Film & Television Association.

“American creators, producers, workers and consumers all benefit when U.S. trading partners enact strong IP laws, effectively enforce those laws, and eliminate barriers to their markets,” sums up this year’s report. “Strong IP protection and enforcement also help U.S. trading partners develop, nurture, and enjoy the economic and cultural benefits from their own cultural and creative sectors, ultimately for the benefit of local consumers.

“The success of the creative community in digital trade depends on strong copyright laws and enforcement practices that foster a legitimate online economy. Open markets and modern copyright laws, when combined with effective and efficient enforcement of those laws, have resulted in creators and producers investing in the creation and dissemination of new high-quality materials, ultimately meeting worldwide consumer demand. To maximize market potential, rights holders must remain at the forefront of technological developments to expand markets and creative activity and to launch new business models.” 

As usual, this year’s report makes recommendations for strengthening copyright protections, including in countries identified as currently representing higher risks for infringement. 

One area highlighted for concern is piracy of motion picture and TV programs by devices. 

“A damaging piracy ecosystem has emerged around piracy devices and apps,” the report states. These illicit streaming devices (ISDs) provide illegal access to movie and television content through a variety of means, including downloading and streaming content, as well as unauthorized streaming of live television and sporting events, thus undermining the licensing fees paid by distributors on which content creators depend.” 

MPA members “continue to suffer enormously from a growing threat of these devices and apps,” it continues. “Streaming devices that are preloaded with infringing apps and illicit TV/video-on-demand (VOD) subscription services can be found online and in physical markets. The challenge is particularly acute in countries where the legality of the devices and of activities surrounding their trafficking, remains in doubt.” 

China is a major source of set-top boxes that enable unauthorized access to streaming video and other content. 

In addition, illegal apps that can load illegal material on otherwise legitimate streaming devices can be found through “myriad”  mainstream and specialty app stores, IIPA reports. But because the devices and apps “are part of a sophisticated and integrated online ecosystem facilitating access to pirated audiovisual materials, enforcement against them presents complex challenges.” 

Many of the physical marketplaces of greatest concern to the copyright industries now increasingly feature goods and services enabling piracy devices and apps, or stalls, kiosks, or “repair” shops that offer to load unauthorized copyright material or piracy-enabling apps onto any device. 

With evidence, the retailer/distributor can be held liable, or the app developer (if identifiable) can be prosecuted. Governments can also take action against key distribution points for devices that are used illegally, including online and physical marketplaces where they are sold. 

“Vigorous action is needed to lessen the growing harm to the legitimate digital delivery of copyright materials by these devices,” IIPA stresses. 

Another of several ongoing and increasing threats described: Cable and satellite piracy through illegal Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) services is another continuing threat. 

These services provide access to stolen telecommunication signals or channels and offer on-demand infringing film and television content to a global audience via dedicated web portals, third-party applications, and piracy devices configured to access these services. 

According to the report, more than a thousand illegal IPTV services operate worldwide, offering hundreds of channels sourced from multiple providers, along with VOD content of unauthorized movies and television programs — and far from being surreptitious, they’re surprisingly blatant. 

“Many of these illegal services are subscription-based, for-profit services, with monthly or yearly user packages,” says IIPA. “The technical infrastructure of these services is often vast and complex, making the identification of content sources and service operators extremely challenging. The marketing and sale of these IPTV services are often carried out by a network of global IPTV re-sellers who purchase subscriptions at wholesale prices and re-sell them for a profit, further complicating investigations.” 

IPTV services have also been “the driving force in the emergence of related illegal businesses, including those engaged in the re-sale of IPTV services or the theft, distribution, and sale of channel feeds,” adds the report. “In addition, IPTV services rely on infrastructure and support services, including from hosting providers, media servers and panel hosts, sometimes without the knowledge or approval of the illegal services or product (but sometimes in cooperation with these services). As a result, criminal enforcement against these large-scale operations is the most effective deterrent.” 

The report also details problems like illegal camcording of movies (yes, that’s still common) and services and devices designed to circumvent technological protection measures (TPMs) — including “stream ripping” services, which have become the dominant method of pirating music around the world. 

“The range and variety of legitimate material now digitally available to consumers, in so many formats and on so many platforms, is possible because of the widespread use of TPMs by content producers and licensed services,” IIPA points out. “New business models depend on these technological controls. TPMs also ensure that works made available in hard goods (DVDs and Blu-ray discs), in the online or mobile environment (including e-books and video games), or through on-demand streaming services or conditional access (e.g., pay-TV, pay-per-view) are not easily stolen and that pirated copies of video games are not playable on console platforms.” 

“Unfortunately, there are business models built entirely around providing services, or manufacturing and distributing technologies, software, devices, components, or tools, to circumvent TPMs,” it continues. “While legal protection of TPMs, where properly implemented, enables effective enforcement actions against distributors of unlawful circumvention technologies, these efforts are often undermined by countries that have yet to implement any adequate protections.”

So there you have it. Obviously, more specifics about the challenges and methods of tackling these can be found in the full report. 

The bottom line: IIPA “continues to urge the U.S. government to use the Special 301 review and other trade tools to encourage the countries and territories identified in our submission to make the necessary political commitments and take the necessary actions to bring real commercial gains for the U.S. creative industries, by strengthening copyright protection and enforcement regimes worldwide.”

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