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Tackling Illegal Sports Broadcasting: A Nexus with Copyright Law

With the advent of technology, the broadcasting[1] segment has seen a significant increase in viewership, looking into specifically the sports broadcasting segment we have seen a rise in subscribers due to an increase in Digital Platforms and changing trends. Initially, people used to prefer television broadcasting for watching sports but today the trend has seen a shift to digital platforms. Today the audience of the 15-30 years age group prefers watching live streaming of the matches on their smartphones or Tablets.

The increase in numerous ways to watch sports is beneficial for the fans, broadcasters are facing potential threats from the issues arising in the sports broadcasting sector. The contention behind the issue was the split of media rights between multiple platforms i.e., OTT & Television. Most of these platforms aren't free and require subscription fees.

The combined cost of taking subscriptions of different platforms for watching sports becomes an expensive deal for the fans. At the same time, the increasing valuation of media rights contributed to making the situation worse, and hence as a result of increasing prices, sports fans have started to view illegally sports streaming or pirated streams online.

Due to this serious issue of online piracy, some broadcasters have faced legal risks & issues of being shut down due to financial losses. Finding pirate streams online is not at all a difficult task but shutting it down is; it has proved to be an impossible task to completely shut down pirated sports league broadcasting. Several times legal actions have been taken in the past for shutting it down but still many illegal streamers are fully operational.

In fact, the situation is this right now one stream is taken down several others pop up at the moment. Younger fans use to watch sports online mostly due to lack of affordability and this is also one of the major contributors to piracy due to this broadcaster losing their money as well as the subscriber base.

An injunction was granted by Delhi High Court in the order dated 29/06/2022 in Favour of Sony Entertainment network against the illegal telecasting of the India-England Cricket Series 2022 by rogue websites. We will be discussing in detail the Intellectual Property aspects of illegal broadcasting taking the reference of the abovementioned case followed by the recommendations to curb online piracy of sports broadcasting.

Background Of The Case Sony Pictures V. Mylivecricket- Delhi HC, 2022

SONY Pictures India Network Pvt. Ltd (Plaintiff), the Plaintiff in the present case owns and operates "SONY TEN Network" of channels and has acquired from England & Wales Cricket Board Limited (ECB) the broadcasting rights for the India-England Cricket Match which is scheduled to take place from 1st July 2022 to 17th July 2022 in the territories of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar & Maldives.

Plaintiff has acquired the Exclusive Television Rights, Digital Rights & Exclusive Radio Rights; Exclusive Clip Rights, Public Screening Rights, Audio Rights & rights regarding making of programs related matches & highlights programs; Lastly the exclusive right to create contemporary textual commentary of matches on the mobile platforms. In the present case, the defendants are habitual offenders who have indulged in infringing the exclusive broadcasting rights of the plaintiff in the past.

Here Defendants No. 1-39 are rogue infringing websites who are indulged in the business of uploading pirated content & prominent in illegal streaming of various sporting events which ultimately leads to the loss to Plaintiff as well as the Government in terms of revenue collected via tax which is irrecoverable. The Delhi High Court granted the Ashok Kumar Order (Indigenous version of the John Doe Order) in this case.

The plaintiff pleaded for the protection of the copyright in the said matches & since it's not possible to identify the defendants specifically hence to save the Plaintiff to suffer from irreparable loss and injury the court granted a permanent injunction in the favour of Plaintiff.

The Interplay Of Copyright Law In Sports Broadcasting

The issues regarding the copyright of live telecasting of sports haven't been decided by any of the Indian Courts so far, although Delhi High Court time and again is on the affirmative side regarding this issue, a couple of times from its judgments it has stressed on co-existence of copyright & neighboring rights in the form of broadcasting rights separately in the telecast of a sporting event. In the form of Broadcast Reproduction Rights, Broadcasting Organizations have been granted neighboring rights protection under Section 37 of the Indian Copyrights Act, 1957.

Broadcasting Organisation

is nowhere defined under the Indian Copyrights Act, 1957 and this is the main reason it's difficult to say whether Internet broadcasters like Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Sony Live & other similar platforms that solely broadcast content online would be able to exercise the broadcasting reproduction right or not

Live Telecasts of sporting events can be protected as a cinematographic film under the Section 13(b) of the Copyrights Act as the telecast of a live event is nothing but an audio-visual recording.

Presently the biggest legal tool to tackle online piracy in the live telecast of sports events is John Doe Order, in India, it is referred to as Ashok Kumar Order. Ashok Kumar Order is used when the IP holder knows that his right is being infringed but he is unable to identify who has infringed his IP rights; via this order, an ex parte preliminary injunction can be sought by the owner to immediately restrain anticipated IP infringements without waiting to identify who is the exact infringer is before instituting the case.

The genesis of the Ashok Kumar order can be traced back to the year 2002 when the Delhi High Court in the case of Taj Television & Anr. v. Rajan Mandal & Ors. awarded a John Doe order (Ashok Kumar Order) for the 1st time by appointing a local commissioner to search & seize all equipment used for illegal broadcasting from the premises of the cable operators who were illegally broadcasting 2002 FIFA World Cup. In fact, in the present case of Sony Entertainment, the Delhi High Court ordered Ashok Kumar Order and granted a permanent injunction to Sony Entertainment.

The present case of Sony Networks is not the first time it came before the Judiciary, the nexus can be drawn back to several cases held back in 2014-2016 in the case of Star India Pvt. Ltd. & Ors. v. Haneeth Ujwal, the defendants infringed the exclusive broadcasting rights of the plaintiff by illegally broadcasting the 2014 India-England Series footage & another case was of 2016 Department of Electronics & Info Technology v. Star India Pvt. Ltd. which was based on the same lines i.e., illegal streaming of the India-Australia Test Match Series; in both cases, the Delhi High Court granted an ex parte injunction to the plaintiff and asked the defendants to shut down the illegal streaming websites.

Conclusion & Way Forward
From the above discussion, it is evident that the detrimental effect of illegal streaming and broadcasting will further extend in times to come, if not dealt with stringently. With highly accessible technological means, it is next to impossible to prevent pirated streaming just by taking down access points (websites and URLs). The most effective measure must be a combination of an effort to contain the existing access points and at the same time adopt the deterrence theory of punishment, making the offense attract stringent and serious penalties.

Taking cues from the Australian court observation in the case Roadshow v. Telstra, policies can be introduced to bring additions to the term 'limitations' in the legislation and extend the ambit of liabilities to the search engines for providing links to the illegal streaming and broadcasting websites.

Another effective measure against piracy can be the adoption of policies of strict vigilance of reported or suspected URLs and links. Considering the exponential rise in software-based platform creation for sharing illegal content, even the counter effect has to be brought onto the level of an automated system that could tackle the illegal content-creating platforms as soon as it is formed. This could also be done by various social media platforms by introducing the requisite algorithm as it is there for 'adult/disturbing content' shared on such platforms. The efficiency of the step could be enhanced by private agreements wherein the curbing of telecast of pirated content is incentivized by the party that was to be at the losing end had there been no such measure.

Piracy has not just managed to exist but has also remained relevant when it comes to entertainment The menace might not be viewed as anything alarming in the public perspective since it provides quality content at almost no cost, however, it must be noted that the discouragement and loss caused to the industry are significant. Even in terms of economics, it stands as a threat to the employment and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.

Written By:
  1. Manvee, 3rd Year Student of B.B.A LL.B at Chanakya National Law University, Patna (2025 Batch)
  2. Piyush Raj, 2nd Year Student of B.A LL.B at Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar (2026 Batch)

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