Not all stream piracy is conducted under the radar by peripatetic sites that keep reemerging or via third party plug-ins to open source media players such as Kodi boxes, or for that matter via VPNs. There are also sites operating in the open within given territories by exploiting what they may consider loopholes in the law, perhaps old contracts that appear to confer rights at low prices.
Such a case has just blown up in the US where the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE), an anti-piracy coalition of major studios and content producers including Disney, Warner, NBCUniversal, Netflix and Amazon, is suing a Kansas City based wholesale content provider called OmniverseOne World Television. Also in the dock is the company’s owner, Jason DeMeo, accused of violating US law by facilitating illegal streaming of copyrighted content.
Effectively, OmniverseOne is being accused of being the hub of a major and increasingly diverse piracy operation whose spokes are various OTT distributors offering services to consumers at prices below legitimate providers of the same content. Such distributors, mostly relatively unknown beyond the world of dedicated cord cutters, have recently included SkyStream, VivaLive TV, TikiLive, NKT.TV, ExchangeVue, Flixon TV, and Milo TV.
These services, some carrying very similar lineups and terms, provide access to live cable channels including ESPN, HGTV, FX and CNN, to a variety of devices, typically for subs between $30 and $35 a month. The arrangement is brokered via Omniverse, which has claimed it has a legitimate contract requiring users to activate the service by logging in on a “primary” TV device, such as an Android TV or Roku box. Wireless devices can then gain access via those but the services have not been available on a mobile-only basis without a box.
By taking on Omniverse, ACE is upping the ante since its early successes have been confined to individual distributors, the spokes rather than the hubs in the piracy distribution chain. Well before the litigation was filed, questions had been asked about the legitimacy of Omniverse’s operation, centering around an old contract it claims defines the rights.
The company and its owner DeMeo have also declined to give details about this contract save to say that it is one of three existing in the US. ACE claims there is no such contract that confers rights to its members’ content, which has to be paid for under clear terms as with other distributors and pay TV operators.
This contract will clearly feature in Omniverse’s defense against the charges, prompting speculation over what it is. We can only suspect it may be some old cable and carriage license issued by the US regulator FCC and its Copyright Office, which reminds us of the cases a few years ago involving Aereo and FilmOn, two services that wanted to deliver signals of over-the-air TV stations to consumers’ computers for a fee. They argued that as they were effectively cable services, they were covered by a statutory license under the US Copyright Act allowing them to rebroadcast TV programming without explicit permission of the copyright owners, simply by paying a fee which was usually very small. These claims were largely overturned in court but never entirely resolved. In the case of Omniverse though it is highly unlikely any old contract would be transferable to the present and to different parties without requiring renegotiation.
The question of this old contract has even led some analysts to suggest that Omniverse itself could be victim of a scam. That too seems unlikely for, irrespective of the outcome of the current litigation, Omniverse has seemed to know what it was doing. It may certainly be true that some of the distributors, the spokes in the ecosystem, have been unaware of the controversies over the license.
That certainly applies also to most subscribers, who must have believed they were just getting their favorite content at better value for money, albeit without the quality of experience provided by the mainstream services being undercut. Even if Ominiverse does disappear there will be continuing demand for cut price or even pirated services if, as seems likely, the online SVoD market does fragment with the entry of big studios such as Warner and Disney, as well as Apple, which is likely to end the era when almost everything could be found on Netflix. If consumers require multiple subs to access all the content they want then they could end up paying the same as they did a decade ago, in the US at least, for the bloated pay TV packages they have been flocking away from. That can only stoke the fires of piracy.