UK Minister for Intellectual Property Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe has launched the Government’s intellectual property (IP) enforcement strategy, highlighting the threat of illegal streaming services and set-top boxes.
The strategy document – Protecting creativity, supporting innovation: IP enforcement 2020 – lays out the areas that the government sees as the most pressing priorities, and some of the work that it sees as most necessary to make sure that IP enforcement works.
“In some ways we start from a favourable position. The UK has done well in recent years, being ranked highly for its IP system, and its enforcement environment in particular. But we must work tirelessly to keep ahead of the game,” she said at a launch event.
According to Neville-Rolfe, the first piece of this was to ensure that we know our enemy. “Good evidence, and clear intelligence, about the harm caused by infringement and the business models that facilitate and profit from it, are central to an effective response.”
“That is why I have asked the Intellectual Property Office to develop a robust methodology for measuring the harm caused by IP infringement. I have tasked them with developing a comprehensive scoreboard to be published annually, combining data on the prevalence of civil and criminal IP infringement with the outcomes of enforcement activity and the best available estimates of their impact.”
“This means better reporting in the criminal justice system, better reporting of court cases and a deeper understanding of consumer behaviours and emerging trends. The IPO has been supporting industry and enforcement agencies with its IP Crime Intelligence Hub, and has built links into the police and trading standards to share that intelligence,” she noted,
“We must also stem the tide of infringing material online. The Prime Minister has announced a universal service obligation for broadband of 10 megabytes for every household by 2020. That will be amazing for consumers and legitimate online businesses, but an open door for pirates to push out yet more infringing content,” she admitted.
“We need to make it easier for consumers to recognise legitimate content, and to understand the harm caused by piracy. We also need to find a new model for notice and takedown which does not require rights holders to send millions of notices only to see the same content reposted as soon as it is taken down,” she said.
“We have had some successes here, with the creation of the Infringing Website List now beginning to starve pirate sites of the advertising money they need to survive, but we must push this approach out further, to other intermediaries and to other territories,” she declared.
Having announced the UK’s intention to toughen penalties for online copyright infringement, it has also called on the EU as part of its work on the digital single market to protect the system of website blocking injunctions we have developed in the UK, and to ensure those same injunctions are available in other member states.
She noted that set-top boxes capable of accessing infringing broadcasts were initially an issue in business premises especially of pubs taking the opportunity to screen football matches without a valid subscription.
“But more recently, as we will hear later, these set-top boxes have entered the mainstream consumer market. And I can see the appeal. If the only factor guiding a purchase decision is price, then a set-top box which allows you to watch countless premium channels for a modest one off payment is an attractive option,” she admitted.
“But perhaps this also gives us an insight into the solution. We must work to educate consumers as to what exactly their bargain entails. If they knew that by buying these boxes and watching infringing streams they were directly damaging the future of their favourite programmes they might think twice.”
“This is not an easy message to get across. But in truth this is the tragedy of the commons writ large. Consumers understand that deliberate infringement has consequences, but many don’t think they themselves really bear any responsibility. That is the mind-set we have to change,” she stated.
“Working with businesses to promote diverse sources of legal content will help to ensure that ‘it’s easier to infringe’ or ‘I can’t get it elsewhere’ are no longer valid excuses for infringement. And educating consumers directly as to the effect their choices have, following the mould of the ‘Get it Right from a Genuine Site’ campaign, will help us build momentum for behaviour change,” she suggested.
“Set-top boxes and IPTV constitute a disruptive technology. Both the boxes, and the online services which they access have legitimate uses, but they have been subverted on a massive scale. The business of satellite and cable broadcasting is a multi-billion pound industry in Europe and brings a wide range of cultural, sporting, educational and leisure programmes to an immense audience.”
She noted that broadcast content was an area where the UK has a strong position. “The reach of content like the English Premier League is truly global and there is hardly a corner of the earth that does not know about Manchester United and other British teams. I understand Leicester City led to chanting in the streets in Thailand and is being wooed for a Harvard Case Study,” she advised.
“Now broadcasting has come a long way since John Logie-Baird demonstrated the first working TV. The days of a monolithic central broadcaster producing all of their own content and beaming it out into the world with a big transmission tower are long gone. Broadcasters and content owners today support a massive network of jobs and industry. In addition, the infrastructure of the delivery companies creates employment and revenue that benefits the community and governments as well as shareholders,” she noted.
“Examples of this ecosystem include the domestic manufacturing industry that makes the receiver kit – decoders, the software industry that provides the systems and the security around them, the call centres that handle consumer issues…the list goes on.”
“The value of protecting the delivery of pay to view broadcasts was and has been recognised in the extension of legislation to protect the decoders necessary to receive the signal, allowing subscription services to generate income. It is already illegal to circumvent the security of such devices,” she advised.
“However, as technology has developed and broadband speeds have increased, it is now entirely possible to receive programmes in high quality over the Internet avoiding the use of decoders entirely,” she admitted. “Quite simply the original broadcast is captured at illegal data centres that can be located anywhere and is then re-transmitted as streamed signals over the Internet.
“Set-top boxes, which I must stress have perfectly legitimate uses, are then supplied pre-loaded with apps that can either be used to subscribe to an illegal site or get content for free whilst the site operator generates income from advertising,” she said.
“These devices have quickly become widely available. In the first instance they appeared in pubs and clubs and the industry has invested huge time and effort in challenging them, However, they are now so prevalent that individual consumers are buying them in their droves, and getting free access to copyright material from any broadcaster, anywhere in the world.”
“The threat this poses to the industry is huge and already we have seen specialist providers such as one London-based small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) serving the ex-pat Chinese community being put out of business, with the loss of 50 jobs in London.”
“But this is not an easy problem to crack. The industry in the UK has done everything to ensure that where action can be taken it is. And we are confident that data centres streaming content illegally are very rare in the UK. But the Internet knows no borders, and services based in more tolerant regimes overseas are having a direct impact upon our broadcasters, and our content creators.”
“We also have the fact that the devices themselves are not illegal – as I have mentioned they have legitimate uses and we cannot forget that. Because it is the use they are put to, rather than the devices themselves which are the problem – it is unlikely that they can be successfully regulated like de-coders. In any case as smart TVs become more widely used set-top boxes will not be needed, as the TV itself will just need the right apps to access illegal content,” she suggested.
“But this does not mean we are powerless. Officials in the UK and Europe have sought to influence our Chinese colleagues, so that they consider how they might restrict their manufacture and supply. I myself have visited China as a minister and have discussed exactly these sort of issues. We are also acting at home, to prove to the world that we are willing to clean up our own back yard as well and tackle the demand side of the equation. Recently arrests have been made under conspiracy to defraud legislation, targeting those criminals who commercially order and supply set-top boxes with the intention that they will be used to illegally receive IPTV,” she advised.
“We think this is an effective approach and our work has been a major help to Hong Kong Customs in developing their own ability to prosecute traders in set-top boxes using similar legislation. But despite these small glimmers of light, it is clear that we need some new thinking in this area. The satellite and cable industries and broadcasters continue to invest in better security and enforcement, but it is also clear that the criminals are serious and this sort of organised crime generates huge profits,” she admitted. It is no coincidence that data centres for illegal streaming services tend to be concentrated in places like Russia and the Ukraine and are linked closely to dedicated fraud sites.”
She said she would love to be able to propose a solution, or to announce some targeted new law which would make everything better, but admitted “we are not there yet. That is why we have asked you here today. We must first gather the evidence and intelligence we need. Only then can we look at the legislative framework, at the role of education and awareness raising, and at how we can facilitate closer work within the industries affected.”
“There is no single device or clever trick which solve these sort of problems, but as our strategy lays out, we need instead to develop and maintain an entire toolbox of interventions and remedies,” she concluded.