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On YouTube Live, Pirates Plunder Entire Channels Like ESPN and CNN

By Published on .

A still from a live YouTube stream of CNN programming on Wednesday.
A still from a live YouTube stream of CNN programming on Wednesday. Credit: Sport News TV via YouTube
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A viewer can turn on YouTube most any morning and click on a livestream of CNN, or watch ESPN's most popular shows in real time.

These feeds are often among the most popular YouTube live videos, with thousands of viewers and active live chats, giving free access to shows like "First Take" with Stephen A. Smith, a popular sports talk program.

You could also watch hours of "SpongeBob SquarePants."

These live channels often run pre-roll ads from major brands, too. But neither the money nor the viewers are going to ESPN, CNN or Nickelodeon.

YouTube's longstanding nuisance pirates, who upload video in defiance of copyright law, have used live video capabilities to escalate into stealing whole channels.

"The third video ever shown on YouTube was probably pirated from the first two," said Sean Cunningham, president and CEO of the Video Advertising Bureau. "So this isn't a new problem."

But the live rip-offs come as YouTube is staring down a marketer revolt over ads that were found appearing on objectionable content. If they're not as shocking a place to find blue-chip advertising, they're still cause for marketers to ask exactly where their money is going.

"When Google or Facebook scream from the high heavens they're ready for their TV closeup, give us TV dollars, they are subject to a very different level of scrutiny," Mr. Cunningham said.

YouTube has a system for copyright holders to claim videos that take their content without permission. Its ability to prevent and remove unauthorized sharing of copyrighted work has been a nagging concern that hurt its negotiating position when it came time to strike deals with music labels and movie studios.

YouTube said it moves aggressively to remove copyrighted material and offers ways to fight live copyrighted feeds. "YouTube respects the rights of copyright holders and we've invested heavily in copyright and content management tools to give rights holders control of their content on YouTube," the company said in a statement. "When copyright holders work with us to provide reference files for their content, we ensure all live broadcasts are scanned for third party content, and we either pause or terminate streams when we find matches to third party content."

On another front, YouTube is facing fierce pressure from marketers that have frozen their spending there after their ads were found on objectionable video.

Part of YouTube's solution is an artificial intelligence surge to police the platform and identify offending videos. There is hope that the stricter measures could squeeze pirate videos, too.

Piracy on live channels does not appear to hook more than a few thousand viewers at a time.

"I get that producers find any amount of illegal streaming to be an abomination, but it is likely to be a small number of actual hours pirated by a small number of people," said James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst. "Not that that makes it legal, but that does technically blunt the effect of piracy, which was not the case with, say, music downloading back in the heyday of casual piracy."

Still, the cable TV industry is scrambling for all the subscribers it can get as it faces growing competition from digital video services attracting "cord cutters." News and sports are among the most valuable content still underserved by such digital-only platforms.

This week YouTube officially introduced its previously-announced digital TV package with a selection of networks, including ESPN, offering their signals in a $35-per-month bundle. As with music piracy before it, offering the content cheaply and conveniently could undermine interest in pirated TV content.

"Digital theft greatly impacts innovation and creativity and affects everyone who makes a living producing and distributing content," an ESPN spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement. "We believe this new relationship with YouTube TV will help improve the reduction of pirated content, and we will continue to engage YouTube to manage it."

CNN and Nickelodeon parent Viacom did not return requests for comment.