Football has much bigger things to worry about than six second videos being shared across Social Media hasn’t it? Well not if you read some of the more recent news stories and official comments made by the governing bodies that run the game in England. Statements using words such as “crackdown”, “unlawful” and “infringing” have elevated the issue to headline status with organisations including the BBC, Bloomberg and The Financial Times covering the story in depth in the past few weeks. But is it all just a storm in a tea cup?
It is important to take a step back and understand the context before we can really pass any judgement. The facts on face value are simple. Any distribution of copyrighted material, irrespective of the medium, is piracy. Back in the day it used to be confined to taping the Top 40 off Radio 1, finger ready at the pause button to avoid Mike Reid’s voice. Technology has presented us with so many opportunities to take our media with us wherever we go in a digital form, but that has increased the problem of piracy to untold lengths. Illegal distribution of latest film releases is still a major issues for film studios as well as cinemas who need to constantly police their theatres to ensure nobody is covertly recording movies.
Vine seems to be the latest problem child. The app, designed specifically for the smartphone, allows users to make their own 6 second “movie”, condensing video and pictures, then sharing with the world at the touch of a button. Formed in June 2012, the start-up was acquired by Twitter before it even officially launched for a reported $30 million having been seen as a natural rival to what Facebook were trying to do with Instagram. Today, with over 40 million users, Vine is a platform for those with creative vision, challenging users to make those six seconds unique, compelling and above all worthy of sharing on Social Media. According to an article published by US Library of Medicine earlier this year, our attention span has dropped to just eight seconds on average, meaning that Vine is becoming the perfect media for advertisers who want to grab the attention of Internet users.
The fact that the word “vine” has now entered the modern day lexicon along with Tweet, SnapChat and Like shows how we consume digital content. So why is there a problem?
During an average 90 minute football match, the ball is only actually in-play and live for around 50 minutes. Out of that period how many minutes are taken up by goal mouth action or incidents? Five minutes at the maximum? You only have to watch the final game every Saturday on Match of the Day to see how brutal an editor can be with a mediocre game, reducing 90 minutes down into 90 seconds. So if you are able to compartmentalise the key moments, Vine becomes the perfect medium to share the action. With our short attention span, do we really need to see the same incident for every angle or just be able to pause and rewind it ourselves?
The Premier League is the richest football league in the world. The excesses in our national game have been driven by outlandish commercial deals, spiralling ticket prices but above all, multi-billion pound TV deals. Having invested so much money into these deals, broadcasters such as Sky have to get the return on their investment in terms of subscribers. One way to get new viewers and keep the old ones coming back month after month? Invest in the technology. Sky Plus, TiVo boxes and hard disk recorders are all now staple items in living rooms up and down the country allowing us to record, pause, rewind and access additional content as standard. By being able to rewind the action to the point where the latest action starts, Vine users can then simply take a screenshot of the action then press publish. Seconds later the goal can be seen on timelines of millions of people across the world on Twitter. This has been the catalyst to the high-profile issue that the Premier League want to clamp down on. So in summary, the commercial rights that they put on the table have essentially fuelled a problem they now want the broadcasters and Social Media to stop.
So what exactly is the issue? In its simplest form it is one of copyright infringement. Everything that happens on a Premier League football pitch is copyrighted, owned by the clubs, the governing bodies, the advertisers, the broadcasters or the sponsors. Even taking pictures within a stadium can get you ejected or even arrested – the use of any device that can capture or distribute digital content is explicitly banned according to the stadiums conditions of entry, although few will mind you taking the odd snap or two. The reason is that every time you capture an image it will contain copyrighted material. A shirt sponsor, a perimeter board even a player’s face themselves. Companies pay millions to have exclusive rights to be associated with the players, the clubs and the stadiums and they take a dim view of anyone else having a free ride.
Good old technology again has made the professional production of instant highlights possible and so the Premier League has been able to offer additional rights packages to commercial partners. Last season the Premier League sold the online digital rights for the distribution of goal action to News International to mobile devices. Their paid-app product touts “almost immediate” access to every goal in the Premier League. Yet before they can push the net-rippler out, thousands of people have already shared the moment through a Vine on Social Media. What is the value then in a subscriber using their service if they can get it quicker, and cheaper, elsewhere? If existing subscribers simply walk away from the paid service, what value are News International getting from their significant investment and are they likely to renew it?
Match of the Day used to be our only way of seeing the day’s main action. Today, before the famous theme tune starts just after 10.30pm on a Saturday, all of the day’s main talking points have been shown around the world thousands of times. What football fans want to see are those incidents that the TV broadcasters never show. Take the example from the opening day’s Premier League game between West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur. An eventful game with two sending offs, a missed penalty and a late winner for the visitors. But the main event which was shared across the world via Vine was when a pitch invader ran on the turf and took a free-kick on goal that was being lined up whilst being pursued by stewards. Yet that one incident will never be shown on Match of the Day, Sky Sports or BT Sports. Why? Because it may encourage others to do the same? Maybe, but the main reason is that it could be deemed to undermine the value of our game to those commercial partners.
So what can the Premier League do to enforce the laws on copyright infringement on Vine? Practically, very little. The one aspect here is one of the fundamental principles of English law. To be found guilty of an offence the perpetrator has to demonstrate the “mens rea” and the “actus rea”- the guilty mind and guilty act. In theory, if someone didn’t mean to do something wrong, they can’t be found guilty of an offence. It is not always as simple as that but does someone who takes a Vine of Aaron Ramsey’s 90th minute winner for Arsenal versus Crystal Palace doing so because he is intent on infringing the Premier League, among others, image rights or because he wanted to share the moment with millions of fellow Arsenal fans across the world?
Once infringing content has been identified, there is still the issue of removing it. The beauty of Social Media is that it’s instantaneous. I can quickly search using hashtag for the material I want and see immediately. But if material needs to be removed there is a set process that has to be followed and that takes time. The reason why hundreds of millions of people use Twitter is that it allows free speech. If it was heavily policed then people would simply move elsewhere. So whilst the Premier League can request that content is removed for legitimate copyright infringing reasons, it will have been seen by thousands of people already.
So is this just sabre-rattling by the football authorities, or will they genuinely crackdown on users sharing illegal content? Brand and reputation monitoring solutions are becoming more effective every month but they would still need to justify the investment in a comprehensive solution would be effective in eliminating the problem. We see technology advancing all the time, so who is to say what medium we will using and consuming in six months let alone six years. Football has far too many other issues that need to be addressed before it can genuinely think about policing social media to stop these issues.
PS – I wrote this a few weeks ago. On Saturday I noticed that a very well-known ex-Premier League footballer who is now a commentator on a national commercial radio station tweeted a “Vine” from the Liverpool v West Brom game whilst it was still in-play to his hundreds of thousands Twitter followers, breaching the rules.