A website that illegally streams live television to personal computers and shows English football games each week could be closed down by the Premier League.
The success of MyP2P.eu, which is registered in the Netherlands, illustrates the problems that sports bodies face as they struggle to protect lucrative deals with broadcasters at a time when broadband access is making it easier to watch television programmes illegally.
A host of recent Premier League matches have been shown on the site. MyP2P will also screen Manchester United's Carling Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday. It showed the England cricket team's one-day international matches with Australia last week, along with hundreds of other sporting events, including American football games, rugby and Formula One.
The site uses "peer-to-peer" technology, effectively acting as a conduit for users who want to share content over the internet. Emails sent by the Observer to the site administrator were not answered.
The Premier League makes about £1bn a year from selling the rights to screen its games. Revenues from overseas rights more than doubled to £625m when they were last sold off, but they have been renewed on a staggered basis and that sum is expected to be exceeded this year. The current arrangement includes 81 deals covering 211 territories.
Technological advances mean it is now easy for viewers abroad to make games available online. The Premier League has a policy of not showing any live matches at 3pm on a Saturday, but that rule does not apply to foreign broadcasters. Media industry figures point out that this creates an opportunity for pirates, who act to meet a demand from British audiences for games that cannot otherwise be seen.
Simon Denyer, chief executive of Perform, which works with rights owners to create highlights packages that are shown on dozens of legal websites, including those run by major newspaper groups, said piracy is a growing problem. "If you don't allow someone to watch [games] from an official source, then the pirates do it for you. The biggest problem is the 3pm Premier League kick-offs," he said.
Denyer added that the vast majority of illegally available games were "very low quality, with strange commentary and graphics".
The number of pirated games is likely to grow because broadband take-up in the UK is high and growing. According to the media regulator, Ofcom, 65% of UK homes had a fixed broadband connection in the first quarter of 2009, up from 41% in 2006. Cable companies, including Virgin Media and the telecommunications giant BT, are also offering customers "superfast" broadband packages that enable users to download moving images quickly. Previously, it could take hours to download films or TV shows, but that can now be done in minutes.
The film and TV industries are also suffering as more consumers experiment with illegally acquiring online content, and have been lobbying the government to take action. Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, pledged last month to crack down on the problem, but internet service providers have been engaged in a fierce row with content owners over who should bear the cost.
File-sharing music sites, including LimeWire and Napster, use the same peer-to-peer method, encouraging subscribers to make songs available to fellow users free of charge. Napster began as an illegal site but now operates within the law. The music industry claims illegal file-sharing sites have cost it up to £18m a year in lost revenue.
The Premier League said 1,800 cases of illegal streaming were dealt with last season, more than 90% of them successfully. It employs a company called NetResult to protect its intellectual property and either remove web content or shut down websites that are illegally streaming games.
The league is also embroiled, along with several other companies in the music and film industries, in a long-running legal battle with YouTube, which it accuses of illegally showing Premier League games. It is suing the video-sharing site, which is owned by internet giant Google, in a New York court.
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