The two apps are live streaming apps meant to allow users to show live video from their phone to the world. They both have been the center of a great deal of press and media attention, much of it because of a well-publicized battle between Meerkat and Twitter, which owns Periscope.
But the renewed focus and popularity of live streaming has once again brought attention back to piracy and the possibility for these services to be abused by those wanting to share or view copyrighted material.
This fear has been driven home by the fact that dozens of users have used the apps to stream all or part of Fast and Furious 7, which is currently in theaters. But for all of the hand wringing and hypothetical questions, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of worry on the ground, with both the MPAA and theater owners saying it is not a top concern for them.
But should they? Is live streaming the future of piracy or is the risk something that can be easily dismissed? The answer lies in live streaming and the history of the medium.
History of Live Streaming
To be clear, live streaming and the questions it raises are nothing new. In 1993 the band Severe Tire Damage because the first band to perform live on the Internet.
In 2007, Justin Kan began live streaming his entire life, which led to the foundation of Justin.TV, which in turn became a user-generated content site focused on live streaming. That site would later launch Twitch, which went on to supplant Justin.tv and be bought by Amazon.
Along with Twitch, sites such as Livestream.com, Ustream and Google Hangouts have also brought live streaming to the masses. What’s changed over the past 20+ years is both the widespread prevalence of high-speed Internet, making both streaming and viewing possible, and the rise of smartphones, making it possible to stream and watch from almost anywhere.
So while Meerkat and Periscope may be new, the idea and the legal issues that spring from it are not. For example, Justin.TV and Ustream were at the heart of this issue in 2010/2011 when they both were sued by the Ultimate Fighting Championship over infringing streams of its pay-per-view events that were watched by 100s of thousands of people. As a result of this, Justin.TV and Ustream both implemented takedown systems to combat piracy.
But, as everything old becomes new again, are Meerkat and Periscope a threat to content creators? The answer probably depends on what you’re producing.
The Limitations of Live Streamed Piracy
Both Meerkat and Periscope have a pretty severe limitation when it comes to using it as a platform for piracy, neither create a permanent copy of the recorded work.
While Periscope will store your video and make it playable for 24 hours after you finish recording, Meerkat streams end as soon as the video is offline with no option to replay it.
As a result, even if a person is able to stream an entire film or Broadway play (overcoming various other limitations), it’s gone almost as soon as the app is closed. This requires someone wanting to pirate the film to be searching for it, join it as soon as it goes live and then watch the whole thing in one sitting, hoping that the stream doesn’t end early.
For most audiovisual works, live streaming piracy, especially through Meerkat and Periscope, is just not a huge threat.
The exception is with content that is being broadcast live and to a limited audience. There’s a reason why most of the largest legal battles over piracy and live streaming have involved sports ranging from the UFC, an earlier case involving a boxing promoter and even a lawsuit over the live streaming of high school football.
Most of the major live streaming sites, however, have protections in place to reduce piracy, making them less-than-safe havens for illegal streamers. As a result, there’s been a rise of sites dedicated exclusively to streaming sports and other live events illegally.
Those sites are so prominent that even New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady admitted to using one to watch the Super Bowl while he was in Costa Rica.
So even in the situations where Meerkat and Periscope might be useful for piracy, there’s already a very crowded market for such streams. It’s not likely that Meerkat or Periscope will be the big destination to watch the next World Cup.
With every new technology, questions inevitably get raised about how it will be used or misused when it comes to copyright and piracy. Meerkat and Periscope is no different.
However, while those apps may be relatively new, live streaming is not and the legal questions surrounding it, while not fully answered, have been in the spotlight for over a decade.
So while live streaming is hot again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the legal issues are as well. While I predict both Meerkat and Periscope will have to take some steps to reduce piracy down the road, it’s unlikely that they are a paradigm shift for piracy.
Not when it is ineffective for most types of audiovisual content and the pirates that would have an interest have so many better options already available.