Maples and Calder Ireland sponsor The College Tribune's Law Section
Maples and Calder Ireland sponsor The College Tribune‘s Law Section

Picture the scene, you’re 10 years old and you just sat down in front of the television. You open the DVD player, stick in your favourite movie and press “Play”. Blaring music roars and white lettering appears on your screen. “You wouldn’t steal a car”, it says. The short video carries on with this style mentioning handbags, televisions, and DVDs before informing you downloading movies is stealing and finally, those 4 iconic words are shown as the music fades out, “Piracy. It’s a crime”.

Piracy to this day is still a crime and has branched out beyond the aforementioned movies and is now also commonly used as a way of watching live sports for free or at a reduced cost.

This is often done through the use of a device commonly known as a “dodgy box”. A “dodgy box” allows its user to circumvent a TV’s copyright controls and view content they haven’t paid the respective copyright holder for.

An example of how this can work in sports is as follows; the right to broadcast an event is usually sold by an organisation such as Ligue 1, the French football league, to a broadcasting company such as BT Sport for a specific area in this case Ireland. BT Sport then charges a fee to those in Ireland who wish to watch Ligue 1.

By using a “dodgy box” the user can access streams often originating in a different country by bypassing geographic restrictions, a cheaper option than paying BT Sport for the privilege of watching Strasbourg take on Clermont Foot next weekend.

This circumvention of copyright restrictions is illegal, and the Copyright Act 2000 makes owning, using, or selling “dodgy boxes” an offence carrying a punishment of up to 5 years and a fine of up to €127,000.

There is recent case law in this area where in December 2023 a suspended sentence was handed down as well as the profits of the sales of the “dodgy boxes” concerned being confiscated following a sting operation instigated by Sky against a Dublin man who was engaged in selling and distributing these devices.

It is important at this stage to distinguish the piracy discussed herein from Blackbeard-style piracy which is governed by several pieces of legislation some of which are older than this State, the Piracy Act of 1837 being one.

During 2023 there were several instances where warnings and notices to stop illegal activities were sent out to individuals across the country highlighting an effort to crack down on the large-scale presence of “dodgy boxes” in Ireland by cutting off their availability at the source.

Most of the efforts to reduce the use of “dodgy boxes” has come via targeting the sellers and not the users, although the latter is not unheard of with a Kerry pub having been fined for a breach of the regulations.

One reason it may be difficult to enforce the legislation against individual users is that the presence of “dodgy boxes” in Irish households is well above the EU average, according to a 2019 report, Ireland has the 6th highest use of the devices in the bloc.

The recent pushback against illegal streaming is not exclusive to Ireland and the Premier League and Sky have also been enforcing their rights in the UK recently bringing a private criminal prosecution against an illicit streaming operation. The sheer value of the live sports TV market would point towards a continuation of this trend in the future as broadcasting companies seek to protect their significant investments.

Stéphane De Bairéad – Law Writer