Millions of people around the world are sidestepping sports broadcast paywalls via a panoply of dodgy websites

Twenty minutes into my maiden attempt to watch a sports match via an unauthorised internet stream, I start to suspect that I'm getting exactly what I've paid for - not a hell of a lot.

Yes, Romania are pressing the French goal-line and there is an air of excitement frothing from my 42-inch high-definition television as the commentators wind themselves into a frenzy. But the picture quality is garbage and I've no confidence that it will continue to grace my screen for any length of time without freezing, dropping out or redirecting me to a website selling discounted Russian brides.

My pessimism about the feed - off a Canadian TV channel - turns out to be misplaced. The coverage continues uninterrupted for the 20 minutes it takes to get to half-time.

I've had to switch web browser, negotiate a nefarious array of pop-up windows, find something to balance my laptop on, as the HDMI cable to the TV is too short, and disable Chrome's ad-blocker. But I've done it. I've watched a major sporting event without paying a fee to those who have paid a much bigger fee for the privilege of being a rights-holder.

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I've had to pay for my computer, television and internet connection, so it would be inaccurate to describe the process as "free", but I've avoided paying directly for the content.

I'm officially a dodgy streamer.

The same match as above after it has bounced from a TV broadcast to the web to a Kiwi laptop to a TV set via streaming.
The same match as above after it has bounced from a TV broadcast to the web to a Kiwi laptop to a TV set via streaming.

I'm not alone. Millions of people the world over are choosing to access sports and entertainment content via pirated online streams - essentially TV broadcasts that are illegally rebroadcast over the internet.

The scale of what has become a global copyright battlefield is vast. A warning notice placed on an illegal streaming site shut down by Britain's Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit was reportedly viewed by 5 million people in just two months.

Another site attracted more than 264,000 unique visits on the opening day of the NFL season. The number would have been higher had the site not crashed because of the level of traffic.

It's hard to know exactly how many streaming operations are out there, but the answer is likely to be hundreds - serving a "customer" base well into the millions.

The rapidly increasing popularity of illegal streaming is being driven by advances in quality. Many feeds require streaming speeds of only two or three megabits a second for high-definition quality, making them accessible to just about anyone with a half-decent internet connection.

That's bad news for the likes of Sky Television, the Kiwi pay-TV broadcaster that builds its business on the exclusivity of broadcasting rights for which it pays vast sums.

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RWC matches such as France vs Romania are available, live, to Sky subscribers for a minimum subscription of $76.51 a month. Or viewers can access Sky's online stream via a Fan Pass that costs $14.99 for 24 hours or $19.99 for a week.

Many Kiwis, though, have already twigged to the presence of free, albeit probably illegal, feeds of RWC matches. Sky referred questions about the issue to World Rugby, the ultimate owner of the property being siphoned away by illicit streamers.

"World Rugby is committed to protecting the rights of our broadcasters, who through their investment, play a major role in the growth and development of the game worldwide," a World Rugby statement issued to the Herald said.

"We are proactively engaging with expert third parties who assist us in dealing with the sites that persist in breaching our copyright."

Exactly what that proactive engagement entails or has achieved is unclear.

Shutting down streaming sites, many of which operate from countries with unhelpful legal jurisdictions, is notoriously difficult.

"If it's in Eastern Europe, or further afield than that, having the police in that jurisdiction kick someone's door in to protect the industry of American music, or Sky TV [in Britain], is something they're not keen to do," David Cook, a solicitor who specialises in cyber crime, told the Guardian.

Targeting the people downloading the streams is costly and ineffective, the music industry quickly discovered. And in countries such as New Zealand it is not even clear whether viewers are breaking the law.

New Zealand law forbids the copying of content without permission from the copyright owner. However, it is not clear whether viewing a livestream would qualify as copying.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said the matter had yet to be tested in court. Section 227 of our Copyright Act creates an offence of "fraudulently receiving programmes", however, the ministry was not aware of that having been used in a prosecution of a streamer.

The law may be unclear but the moral position of those who access unauthorised streams rather than fork out the money to rights-holders is not, says Copyright Commission chief executive Paula Browning.

"Just because somebody makes it available so you can do it - I don't know that that means you should."

New Zealand Rugby, Browning points out, is largely funded by the money it can extract from the broadcast of All Blacks matches. Illegal streaming is a clear and present danger to that income stream.

"Are you really supporting the All Blacks by watching an illegal stream?" asks Ms Browning. That argument is unlikely to wash with fans who feel disenfranchised by the increasingly expensive paywalls erected between them and the national rugby team.

"I don't agree with international sporting fixtures like the RWC being exclusive to paying customers," said a viewer who routinely watches matches via a streaming site that provides access to 300 channels, including RWC 2015 host broadcaster ITV.

"ITV is geoblocked to those located outside the UK. But do not worry. [We] can help you stream ITV from anywhere in the world," states a brazen email to its customers that explains exactly how to access ITV's high-definition broadcasts via a back door.

Of seven streaming sites tested by Herald reporters during the France v Romania match, this had the best broadcast.

"There was no stalling, jumping or buffering. It ran smoothly from the get-go. The only 'problem' was the British commentary," said one colleague.

Others weren't quite so lucky. While I and another reporter were able to access lower-quality transmission, three others failed completely.

One reporter gave up on one, after being constantly referred to a pop-up window requesting his details. Another went as far as handing over credit card details but was still unable to access the feed.

Despite multiple assurances he would not be billed, he found his card had been charged $1.64 by the time he cancelled it, less than an hour later.

How it works

1.

Programme or sports match broadcast by a legitimate rights holder to a fee-paying audience.

2. Broadcast accessed by a streamer - often based in another legal jurisdiction - and uploaded to the internet.

3. Pirated stream viewed for free over internet by people without access to a legitimate broadcast.