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

Karl Schaffarczyk 

karl schaffarczyk

of the University of Canberra explores the legal issues around accessing the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics in Australia, in an article first posted on The Conversation.

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 NBCs coverage.

Olympic meme

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.

bbc geo blocked

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?

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.

Kim jong tweet

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 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.

The Conversation


  1. Simon
    9 Aug 12
    8:46 am

  2. Approximately 5% of the Australian population are British or have British heritage. That’s 1.1million people, give or take.

    Do you think you can find ANYWHERE to watch the reply of Sir Chris Hoy winning his historic 6th gold medal? Nope. Not YouTube. Not streaming. Not Channel 9’s website. Nothing.

    Then go and download that terrible, terrible Jump-In app that they keep punting and you wonder how they even manage to get dressed in the mornings. In California, Google have built a car that has now driven 300,000kms on its own. Here in Australia we can’t plan out Olympic coverage properly and deliver a great live product, or an online repository of key highlights for a global audience.

    I got up to watch the 10,000m the other day. It was live on the BBC (i was streaming it) but delayed by half an hour on Channel 9, so by the time

    And don’t even get me started on Eddie McGuire. He actually said ‘twenty one-th’ during the Men’s Marathon the other day. Why can’t we just have Ray Warren commentating on everything?


  3. Simon
    9 Aug 12
    8:47 am

  4. * so by the time we actually got to see it, we knew who had won.


  5. Conor
    9 Aug 12
    9:14 am

  6. You could have watched it live on Foxtel.

  7. Andrew
    9 Aug 12
    9:48 am

  8. “Why can’t we just have Ray Warren commentating on everything?”

    Wait, really?

    How Rabs would’ve called Bolt’s 100m: “He’s got out of the blocks well, 90 TO GO, 80 TO GO, 70 TO GO, 60 TO GO, 50 TO GO, 40 TO GO, 30 TO GO, 20 TO GO, 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, HE’S DONE IT! IMAGINE IF HE PLAYED STATE OF ORIGIN”

  9. Simon
    9 Aug 12
    10:25 am

  10. Come on…Rabs was great in the swimming!

    I’ll admit he might not be best suited to, say, judo or table tennis….! :-)

    And yes, Foxtel is an option for live broadcasts, granted, but my point was about the ability to watch replays/highlights through a service that allows you to have more control yourself.

  11. NA
    9 Aug 12
    1:27 pm

  12. I think the important questions isn’t whether we are breaking copyright law accessing the BBC coverage.

    Its how the management of channel 9 could have failed so badly to recognise how to execute the broadcast rights online, the BBC website isn’t revolutionary or a concept that is beyond execution in Australia… but yet the kronies at the top of channel 9 with their old school thinking couldn’t recognise a golden opportunity – I wouldn’t mind watching ads if it was during a sport which I chose to watch…

    Bring on GoogleTV so these clowns learn a lesson about what delivering content means…

  13. JosieK
    9 Aug 12
    1:28 pm

  14. When criticising the Channel 9 coverage, please don’t forget the fact that they are showing what appears to be non-stop Olympics on two free-to-air channels and broadcasting the SAME CONTENT simultaneously on both! Massive fail. I don’t care if one channel is HD, we could all do with a bit of diversity in the coverage, if only to save us from the horror of Kyle saying “Let’s watch the start of the triath-a-lon” followed quickly by “and back to the track for the 200m heats” . . . and then back to the triath-a-lon (complete with extra syllable), of course. Didn’t anybody check out the competition schedule before planning the coverage? An embarrassment.

  15. Graham
    9 Aug 12
    1:31 pm

  16. “when it is available for free to people in the UK’ – wrong, they’ve paid for it with their licence fees.

  17. Jane
    9 Aug 12
    2:26 pm

  18. BBC is not free – they pay for a TV licence.

  19. RatsRepus
    9 Aug 12
    2:39 pm

  20. Look even NBC has done a better Job than Channel 9.

  21. Anon
    9 Aug 12
    2:39 pm

  22. JosieK. You’d better read up on the licencing conditions regarding their HD channel. There were all sorts of trade-offs one of which was simulcast of the primary FTA on the DFTA channel in order to preserve the anti-siphoning list that dates back 20 years. Lobby your local member.

    And if Ray Warren were commentating for the BBC (shudder at the thought” … wouldn’t it be “Way Wawwen hewe at the Twiathlon”?

  23. WTF
    9 Aug 12
    2:50 pm

  24. How much would it cost Channel Nine to stream the Olympics online? Answer – Heaps and heaps of cash.

    How much would it cost to have several free to air channel with different sport playing? Answer – Heaps and heaps of cash.

    They don’t have the same model of foxtel and they are not a public service like the BBC.

    Oh and they don’t have heaps and of cash.

  25. Me
    9 Aug 12
    3:54 pm

  26. I think it’s great.

    Millions of people unfamiliar with circumventing geoblocks have been made aware of how simple it is. Cheers, Channel 9.

    And for those who are really worried about the legal implications, a lot of VPNs keep no logs at all. Doesn’t matter if the VPN host is investigated, they don’t keep the data that would implicate their clients. Kind of an anti-data retention regime. (Quick search will turn them up, best ones are usually in Northern Europe.)

    And the same tricks used to view streams can be applied to anonymous torrenting. Bonus.

  27. Kim
    9 Aug 12
    3:57 pm

  28. If Channel 9 had two live streams going on both channel
    9 and Gem that would have been OK. Red button BBC coverage, with text stories, medal tallies, live scores and so on adds elements of interactivity, immediacy and more well-rounded coverage, all via the Freeview tv. Why can’t we have that?

  29. Simon
    9 Aug 12
    4:37 pm

  30. “Oh and they don’t have heaps and of cash.”

    No excuse. They’ve had four years to prepare and plenty of opportunities to build a streaming online service off-shore in darkest India. I’m building an online SEO tool for SMEs for $1,200 out of India. I’m sure greater minds could have come up with a better solution than ‘spending heaps of cash’.

  31. One Small World
    9 Aug 12
    4:54 pm

  32. Simple. For the next Olympics the IOC should just take out the middle men.

    I would pay $200 for a full Olympics subscription online, which enables me to watch any event live and repeat view any event undergone.

    I can watch it on my large HD TV – simples(.)

    Just log on to the global IOC website, use paypal, or a credit card, subscribe (with no long term contract, just the time when the Olympics is on.) Easy peesy.

    Oh! Sorry somebody has already mentioned Google TV 😉

  33. John Hollands
    10 Aug 12
    1:18 pm

  34. Hilarious coverage in this age of multi-media, multi-channel.
    I particularly enjoyed the replays of Gilligan’s Island on Nine last Saturday.
    Almost as good as F-Troop over on GEM…

    (Olympics overnight, why not repeat in daytime?)

    Nine aren’t “covering” anything apart from their studios – all the material is recorded into a shared pool of coverage. They can choose to play or not play, play in full or chop into bits. The ultimate video on demand.
    I think they’ve just mixed up the old model with poor management decisions.

  35. anon1
    10 Aug 12
    1:37 pm

  36. Simon: I would actually suggest it is much higher. From WIkipedia:

    >”In the 2006 census, 6.3 million or 32% of respondents identified as “English” or a combination including English, such as English-Australian. The census also documented 860,000 residents of Australia as being born in England. Most of them are descendants of English settlers who arrived during the colonial era and the Big Brother Movement.”

    That said, I have witnessed many Australian Australians complaining about being unable to watch certain events. Not every person is only concerned with their own nationality’s performance.

  37. Paddy
    10 Aug 12
    2:27 pm

  38. It’s awesome all this new technology I’ve had to learn about recently and now looking forward to watching BBC’s iplayer.

  39. Billy C
    10 Aug 12
    3:15 pm

  40. If i could get the BBC player to buffer rather than just keep skipping I wouldn’t have watched any of nine’s coverage. It’s the first time I’ve watched extended periods of commercial television in years and they seem to have about 6 ads they play over and over again. I wouldn’t have watched Big Brother buy I’m actively skipping Underbelly and House Husbands as a lame personal protest of the over exposure. When they cut away from the cycling to interview Prince Harry and Prince William I almost thew a shoe at the the telly. What on earth are they going to say that has to go out live? They don’t have an easy job running one channel but surely they could have streaming with ads. It would be nice to be able to watch an entire game of something… anything…

  41. JosieK
    10 Aug 12
    4:08 pm

  42. @ Anon – I agree with with @Simon; they’ve had four years to plan this, they should have developed a better strategy. Here’s a suggestion: if you only have content for one channel, don’t run the same content on two. Offer us the choice you promised when launching the extra channel.

  43. WTF
    10 Aug 12
    4:30 pm

  44. Simon – when I say heaps and heaps of cash – I’m talking about the “rights” to stream online. Nine reckon they will lose 25 million on the broadcast alone. This really is the IOC taking the piss and the reason why this has happened.

  45. hoax
    10 Aug 12
    5:12 pm

  46. channel 9 kerry packer will be doing back flips in his grave. You commentaters should be sacked. Eddie you are a hoax who loves listining to himself if there was an ego event you wold win hands down. You should get some experiance from fox, bring back ROY and HG

  47. RatsRepus
    10 Aug 12
    5:14 pm

  48. Next Games should be sold of by events. You bid for the events that you will show the majority of. Commit to a level of coverage. That way all channels get some events.

  49. jean cave
    12 Aug 12
    3:24 am

  50. I was surprised to learn, that the visual content of BBC Olympics is all broadcast by The Olympics own broadcasting company who own all the content. BBC adds their own awesome commentators but do not live edit anything themselves.

  51. matty stone
    13 Aug 12
    3:01 pm

  52. Who said the BBC and NHK paid the IOC for olympic broadcasts rights ??

    Only dumbos like NBC and Nine forked out hard cash to receive OBS pooled coverage

  53. matty stone
    13 Aug 12
    3:03 pm

  54. We all know Google and Facebook will bid for worldwide coverage soon.

    And supply live feed for every camera with Google Ads to pay for it.

  55. Anne Orne
    13 Aug 12
    3:14 pm

  56. Matty … the IOC did. And please refrain from using the royal ‘we’. Dolt.

  57. Who's to blame?
    14 Aug 12
    5:17 am

  58. The Olympics rights deals are very confusing. In the UK BBC were able to stream content both on multiple channels on air and more importantly controlled by the user online.

    Could Nine have done the same in Australia? Or would the IOC or the Australian Government not allow it?