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Periscopes, pirates, and pugilists: the battle between TV and live streaming apps

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News of pay-per-view's death is greatly exaggerated

Al Bello/Getty Images

Despite its billing as the mega-fight everyone had been waiting for, last Saturday’s boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was decidedly lacking in action. For 12 rounds Pretty Boy Floyd dodged, rolled, and hugged his way to a unanimous decision. Hungry for some conflict, the media latched onto an unfortunate quip from Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter.

Costolo would later clarify that he was talking about live streams from backstage that had taken place before and after the fight, giving users an intimate glimpse at the boxers out of the ring. HBO was the one using Periscope in that case. But most people assumed he was referring to the numerous illegal live streams of the match which popped up on Periscope, and its rival Meerkat, allowing anyone to catch the action while avoiding the $99 pay-per-view price tag.

The hot takes flew fast and furious from media and tech reporters. Hollywood and Twitter were at each others throats! Periscope and piracy had dealt a body blow to pay-per-view! Finally, a fight where some blood would get spilled, at least metaphorically. You got the sense from the press that more people saw the action on illegal smartphone streams than on cable TV. The reality, however, like the boxing match, doesn’t live up to the hype.

periscope piracy

Not an ideal viewing experience (via Danny Sullivan)

Periscope said it received a total of 66 takedown notices during the action. It shut down about half of those, and the other half had already ended. A spokesperson said the company was able to respond to every takedown notice within minutes. Meerkat said it got a total of about 100 takedown requests. Periscope CEO Kayvon Beykpour joked on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt this week that there were more articles written about the problem than actual pirate streams, and at this point it looks like he was actually right.

Still, the larger question of live streaming as an existential threat to television’s paywall remains. There have always been illegal live streams of popular sporting events available on the web, but those took effort to set up and find. Pirate sites either cost money or greeted you with the worst kind of pop-up ads and malware. Periscope and Meerkat have lowered the barrier to entry, so that amateurs with no profit motive are now broadcasting just for kicks. It’s sort of like the jump from professional bootleggers trafficking tracks on Warez forums to the peer-to-peer network of Napster.

When Mets owner Fred Wilpon heard about Periscope for the first time he nearly bolted out of the room in a rush to call his legal team. The NHL gently scolded journalists who were live streaming parts of the playoff action, and the PGA banned a reporter who streamed golfers practicing before the match. But overall the response has been relatively calm. Major League Baseball’s digital chief Bob Bowman said they would monitor fans use of streaming services, but took a wait-and-see approach on enforcement, hoping to glean some insight into the future of media consumption. "We like to watch fans and get ideas," he told The Wall Street Journal.

Big media companies know Twitter, and by extension Periscope, have every incentive to prevent piracy. These aren’t the early days of YouTube, when the service allegedly played fast and loose with copyright in the pursuit of user growth. Beykpour said that he had a team in place to handle all DMCA takedown requests during the fight. Twitter relies on traditional media for access and advertising dollars. Without a serious approach to curbing this problem, there would be no backstage access for Twitter/Periscope at the fight, or the Oscars, or all the other big live events that synergize so well with its real time nature.

This new breed of mobile apps have plans to fight piracy, and live-streaming veterans have tools in place that can help automate this process. Ustream says it has technology that can "fingerprint" video to identify and remove copyrighted content within 10 seconds of a stream launching. This is similar to the content ID tools YouTube has implemented to help media companies identify and flag offending content.

"We use a combination of processes and technologies (mostly internally developed) for takedowns that we've found more effective than an automated ID tool for this type of live event," said Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable. For events like this, YouTube and Ustream allow content owners to sit inside the system and kill offending streams without having to file takedown notices.

The quality compromises the experience, for now...

There are also attempts to utilize computer vision to analyze the material on a live stream in real time. David Laun, the CEO of Dextro, says that his service can recognize complex objects — a crowd, a cat, or potentially a boxing ring — and help to target illegal broadcasts. The technology isn’t perfect: I saw it identify a stream of puppies playing as "musicians." But during the match on Saturday, for example, Luan says it picked up a huge cluster of images it identified as laptops and television sets.

For now, the final barrier preventing rampant piracy is the technology itself. Aside from the edge case of a $99 pay-per-view, it’s unlikely most people will find a grainy live stream on their mobile phone, cluttered with strangers comments and a flood of hearts, to be worth the money they would save over buying the real thing. “Nobody wants to watch Game of Thrones on Periscope,” Beykpour said. Maybe mom and dad will let you borrow that HBO password for another few years?