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So what’s wrong with watching the Olympic Games over the internet?

Reports of people the world over watching coverage of the Olympics via BBC’s online streaming portal abound. The reasons for this behaviour vary in the detail, but the common feature is: local coverage…

Is it breaking the law to bypass criminally poor broadcasting? sp3ccylad

Reports of people the world over watching coverage of the Olympics via BBC’s online streaming portal abound. The reasons for this behaviour vary in the detail, but the common feature is: local coverage of the Olympics stinks.

In the United States, NBC’s decision to delay coverage has resulted in significant backlash and ridicule. The hashtag #NBCfail has been trending strongly on twitter with constant complaints of the shortcomings of NBC’s coverage.

Channel Nine’s excessive focus on swimming inspired this meme. Source: /

In Australia, Channel Nine’s coverage has not been significantly better. The main criticisms of Nine are: excessive focus on swimming, and maximising ad coverage.

A popular response has been to access highlights coverage and live streaming directly from the BBC sports portal.

To comply with the licensing requirements of the International Olympics Committee, the BBC has implemented geoblocking to permit access only to those located in the United Kingdom.

Accessing the BBC’s video content from Australia is denied. BBC

But all of this is old news: circumvention of these geoblocks is commonplace and trivial with the use of Virtual Private Networks and proxy systems. Popular services include strongVPN, Hide My Ass! (which is currently marketing a summer sports special, but dare not use the word “Olympic”), and the DNS/proxy based Unblock Us.

But how legal is this?

Are laws being broken? Should those of us watching the Olympics in this fashion expect the police at our door or a nastygram from our internet provider?

Keith Allison

The obvious answer is that the BBC has tried to prevent your access, you have circumvented their attempt and accessed their content anyway, and therefore watching their content is infringing copyright. It’s common sense - just like breaking past a locked door - right?

Australian copyright law is not quite so simple.

To begin with, it’s very difficult to shoehorn streaming video media into a definition contained within the Copyright Act. Classification as “cinematograph film” is tricky, unless copies are made by the viewer (the ephemeral copy in RAM which is used during playback does not count).

Classifying highlights and replay coverage as a “broadcast” is problematic due to its on-demand and point-to-point nature. Live coverage fits poorly into the definition of a television broadcast.

Working the first definition, the issue here is that the geoblocking (an access control technological protection measure) is being circumvented.

But a specific exemption applies:

if the work … is a cinematograph film … [and the protection measure] controls geographic market segmentation by preventing the playback in Australia of a non-infringing copy … acquired outside Australia.

So it appears that bypassing geoblocks is permitted under Australian Law, so long as the content is non-infringing.

Is the content infringing?

The BBC’s terms and conditions for personal use explicitly deny certain content (such as video or live television services) from being accessed from outside the United Kingdom.

This contractual requirement seems to fly in the face of the exemption for circumventing technical protection measures. Although there is no case law to guide us whether Australian law overrides a contractual non-export condition, it is unlikely that a court would uphold this interpretation.

The copyright protections available for accessing protected broadcast material such as the BBC’s live content have been made only with Pay TV in mind. These provisions are limited to encrypted broadcasts only.

Further, the BBC’s terms and conditions also forbid access to live TV to anyone without a UK television licence. This is a critical point, as very few people outside of UK would hold one.

While this area of law is untested by courts, it is quite clear that bypassing the BBC’s geoblocks to access coverage of the Olympics has the potential to land someone in hot water. Despite the possible PR disaster that accompanies enforcement action by copyright holders, no-one wants to be the bunny prosecuted in order to clear up the “grey areas” of the law.

The Copyright Act

For many years the Australian Copyright Act was held up as an example of world’s best practice: written to be media neutral to avoid frequent revisions as technology progressed. Recent changes have introduced narrow, technology specific definitions that exclude live streaming TV content, and a general failure to cope with the new internet-connected world. It is clear that this legislation requires a major clean-up.

While this tweet is obviously satirical, it helps us to remember that no matter how we perceive our free to air coverage, some have it much worse. Twitter

Let’s watch the Olympics, not lawyers.

But should we be considering enforcement of copyright at all? Shouldn’t we be asking our regulators and legislators to enforce better coverage and more choice for the people of Australia?

We have done it before: the anti-siphoning legislation is a clear attempt to keep certain sport coverage available on free to air television.

While some have turned to Foxtel, should the many who don’t want or can’t afford Pay TV be forced to risk breaking laws to watch what they want to watch – especially when it is available for free to people in the UK?

Channel Nine is reported to have paid A$120 million for the exclusive rights to bring the games to Australians.

Sadly, buying the rights to broadcast the Olympic games carries no responsibility to broadcast the Games well, or at all. Doing a bad job of it doesn’t reduce the rights of Channel Nine, the BBC or the IOC in maximising their profits and enforcing their copyrights.

So, when you are watching the Olympics tonight, whether via Channel Nine, Foxtel, or streamed from the BBC, stay tuned for the next episode in The Copyright Wars. Rights owners will move to strengthen protection through changes to Australian law that enshrine geoblocking. Civil society advocates can and should resist those changes in the public interest.

The IOC and its broadcast partners need to pull their heads out of the clouds and embrace global transparency.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Sarah Joseph
    Sarah Joseph is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University

    If the BBC doesn't pop up with an "accept" conditions clause (I don't know if it does), couldn't one argue that one has never entered into a contract with them? I guess one could argue implied acceptance, but then why do any sites bother with those popup contracts?

    1. Kelly Schofield


      In reply to Sarah Joseph

      Sarah I agree, shrinkwrap licensing can be problematic.

      You have the right to open a front gate and walk up to the front door, but if the gate is locked, then you have no right to be in the front garden or at the front door.

      I reckon that online trrespass is just as bad as offline trespass.

  2. Jack Arnold


    Has anybody watched a worse programming disaster than the Aussie Men's Hockey Team playing Pakistan (won 7-0) obliterated by a cross from half-time to Eddie Maguire's "call' of the Triathalon??

    Two hours watching paint dry would have been equally entertaining! Was the inset frame broken during this event or was Maguire's repetitive reading of inadequate script really programmed?

    Notes to Channel 9 Sports editor: 1. More people play hockey than do triathalons. 2. More Australians play soccer (the world game) than play all other football codes in Australia combined ... and have done for decades.

    1. Dan Smith

      Network Engineer

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Citation for note 2?

      Plus, you can't argue participation rates for viewing preferences. Soccer lags behind AFL and League in attendance figures; perhaps we like to play safe sports but watch dangerous ones? :)

    2. M Strong

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to tqft

      Australian Sports Commission reports that 57700 Australian adults play hockey. Triathlon Australia reports 135,000+ triathlon participants last season.

      Channel 9 did both hockey *and* triathlon fans a disservice with their coverage. Eddie was awful.

  3. Meg Thornton


    I'd be more interested in getting a sort of "tender" process happening - get an idea of what people want to see (do we want to see everything? Do we just want to watch the events that Australians are involved in? Do we want to cut from the finals of something Australians aren't involved in to watch an Aussie compete in heats elsewhere? Do we want commentary which is informed, or uninformed?) well ahead of time, and then the various networks can decide whether or not they're actually capable of…

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  4. Richard Helmer

    REsearch Engineer

    even whens its 'free' over the're paying for the download one way or another. Some people 'own' the 'airwaves' some the 'light pipes'...i think its in the best interest of any sport that as many people as possible watch and play

    the digital world continues to deliver massive and rapid change...faster than our social processes. Presumably at some point [?] we may reach a new playing field that is generally acceptable and sustainable ...i guess we'll see

    lets keep it 'aspirational'...probably need to define that

  5. Andrew Davison

    Process Engineer

    I was OK with the Ch9 coverage (long ads and all) until I got up at 4am to watch Sally Pearson, followed by the men's 1500m at 04:15. Not only did they miss the start of the 1500m while interviewing Sally (understandable), they then flicked back to the studio for an inane "Didn't she do well?" followed by an ad break. I ended up watching the 1500m on youtube last night.....not happy Jan.

  6. Bruce Baer Arnold

    Assistant Professor, School of Law at University of Canberra

    Fascinating take on intellectual property and other issues ... and excellent to see the next generation of legal researchers grappling with difficult questions

    1. tqft

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Bruce Baer Arnold

      this is precisely my main objection to these measures.

      My participation in global culture is being permitted on the basis of profitability calculations by various corporations.

      So I don't do paytv, so the bulk of the big O I can't watch even if I wanted to.

      The concept that it is a good thing for everything to be packaged, sold and managed for maximum profitability, is implied in the article. That copyright law should be altered to protect corporate control of culture & profitability I find disturbing.

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