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Fight Night: How Tuning into a Boxing or MMA Event Could Land You in Court

For some fans of boxing, mixed martial arts and other pay-per-view sporting events, it’s long after the ring has emptied that the fight really gets ugly.

The pay-per-view business model relies on promoters being able to separately license the event to residential and commercial customers. Because of the significantly higher cost of a license to broadcast the event for commercial purposes (in a bar, for example), it’s common for business owners to try and get away with showing the event under a private license, a practice that has become significantly easier thanks to streaming technologies like Slingbox.

To police this, event promoters and distributors hire investigators—sometimes professionals or off-duty law enforcement but often simply “secret shoppers” recruited from Craigslist—to roam the streets on fight night, take note of any commercial establishments broadcasting the event and, if the venue isn’t on a whitelist of licensed businesses, submit a report and signed affidavit. A few months later, the business owner may find themselves served with a federal lawsuit.

By far the most prolific plaintiffs in such lawsuits are two companies called J&J Sports Productions and Joe Hand Promotions, which between them hold the distribution rights to a great variety of pay-per-view events. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been known to sue unauthorized venues as well.

Though the underlying rights at issue are based on copyright law, the central claims in these lawsuits are actually based on a less well-known federal law: the Communications Act. Sections 553 and 605 of U.S. Code Title 47 prohibit unauthorized reception of cable service and interception of radio communications, respectively, activities that are often referred to as “cable piracy,” “satellite piracy,” or, collectively, “signal piracy.” Though not obvious from the text of the statutes, courts have interpreted signal piracy to include breach of the license under which the satellite or cable transmission is provided.

While some venues no doubt knowingly show unauthorized pay-per-view events, hoping not to get caught, it’s not unusual for business owners to be provided the wrong license from their cable or satellite provider and end up violating signal piracy laws unwittingly. In other cases, private non-commercial gatherings have been wrongly flagged by investigators. Whether or not the facts might support liability under Sections 553 or 605, however, signal piracy complaints, which are often churned out in blocks of a dozen or more at a time, may suffer from technical deficiencies that defendants can leverage to obtain more favorable settlement terms or even dismissal of one or more of the claims.

Statutory damages for signal piracy can go as high as $100,000, though actual awards vary considerably depending on a number of factors, including the defendant’s level of culpability.

If you’ve received a letter from J&J Sports or Joe Hand accusing you of unauthorized transmission of a pay-per-view event or if you’ve been named in a signal piracy suit, give us a call or send us an email and we’d be happy to go over your options. 831-275-1401

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