Suing UFC Fans Isn't the Way to Combat Internet Piracy, or to Turn Freeloaders Into Customers

Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the UFC’s perspective, internet piracy is a pretty straightforward issue. Websites that illegally stream UFC pay-per-view events are criminals, and individuals who watch those streams are their accomplices. The UFC has said it will aggressively pursue legal remedies against both, and now that the world’s foremost MMA organization has obtained user information from Greenfeedz.com -- a streaming website that was recently shut down -- it says that it intends to do just that.

"We believe that we've got an obligation to go out there and try to protect the intellectual property and protect both our rights and the rights of our fighter-partners," UFC chief legal counsel Lawrence Epstein told MMAjunkie.com last week.

Translation: If you watched UFC pay-per-views on Greenfeedz.com, prepare to get sued for, in the words of one attorney representing the UFC in this case, "significantly more" than the cost of a pay-per-view.

What such a strategy might ultimately cost the UFC and its parent company Zuffa, however, seems to be a question that the MMA giant hasn’t fully considered.

To hear the UFC’s Epstein tell it, suits against those who illegally streamed UFC events wouldn’t technically be suits against the organization’s own fans because "people that steal our stuff – they're not our fans." Except that they are, or else they probably wouldn’t be sitting in front of a laptop on a Saturday night watching a UFC event, whether they paid for it or not.

When Epstein says that those people aren’t the UFC’s fans, what he really means is, they aren’t the fans the UFC wants. That’s why the UFC feels just fine about threatening to sue those particular fans (though it’s arguable whether that threat is a legitimate one), and also why it seems to think this would ultimately be good for the organization. It wouldn’t, and there are a few different reasons why.

For starters, the UFC seems to believe that there are two types of MMA fans: the type who buys the pay-per-views, and the type who watches them illegally. In reality, the line between those two groups is probably a lot blurrier than Zuffa realizes. Chances are very good that some of the people who have streamed events in the past have also bought them, and probably will buy them again at some point in the future. Maybe they only pony up the $55 for the pay-per-view when the card is good enough, or when they can get friends to split the cost with them. Maybe they stream it when they only care about one or two fights, or when they’re simply too strapped for cash to afford it.

My point is, not all piracy is created equal, at least on the receiving end, and attacking viewers as if they are distributors could do much more harm than good.

For instance, picture a 19-year-old college student just about anywhere in America. He wants to see a UFC event, but maybe he can’t even afford basic cable, let alone a pay-per-view. He can’t go to a bar to watch the fights (unless he has a convincing fake ID), so he stays home and finds an illegal stream on his laptop, because he can't stand to miss the big fight. Then, months later, he gets sued by the UFC.

What’s going to happen when that kid graduates, goes to work, and finds a job that will allow him to enjoy luxury expenses like pay-per-views? You think he’s going to become a loyal customer of the company that sued him back when he was struggling to buy books? You think he’s going to buy a ticket to see a UFC event when it comes to his city? You think he’s going to buy merchandise or watch free events or patronize the UFC in any way after that experience? Maybe. Or maybe he’ll hold a little bit of a grudge. You know, for the rest of his natural life.

That’s not to say that the UFC should give out pay-per-views as charity, or even look the other way while its events are pirated. As Epstein points out, UFC stars like Georges St-Pierre get a cut of pay-per-view proceeds, so it isn’t just some faceless company that’s harmed by piracy -- it's also the guys who are actually bleeding for their cash. (Though, as a sidenote, if fans who watch illegal streams are stealing from GSP, and if the UFC sues those fans, does that mean GSP will get a cut of whatever restitution the UFC receives in court? Call me a cynic, but I don’t see it going down that way.)

Still, there’s plenty of justification for going after the internet pirates themselves. They really are stealing from the UFC and from fighters like GSP, and the UFC should do what it can to stop them. But going after the individual viewers is not only a questionable PR move, it’s also not a terribly cost-effective one.

The user information that Zuffa recovered from Greenfeedz alone was "voluminous," according to an attorney representing the company, and litigating against so many individual users who merely consumed illegally pirated material has proved to be a tough sell in court. Even if the UFC does win a judgment against some laptop jockeys who either couldn’t or wouldn’t ante up for the pay-per-view, will it see enough cash in return to make the legal fees and the PR headache worth it? Will the fighters who were supposedly robbed be better off for it?

Maybe the UFC won’t actually try it. Maybe it will be content to let word of the threat spread around the internet, and hope that the bluff alone will be enough to deter fans from turning to illegal streams. Maybe it will instead focus on going after the distributors of pirated content rather than the consumers, since without one there wouldn't be the other, and maybe it will even take a more active role in trying to turn those would-be stream-watchers into actual, paying customers.

In other words, maybe the UFC could stand to use a little more carrot and a little less stick when it comes to its online fanbase. Because, let’s be honest, those people are fans. They are the people that UFC wants as its audience, both now and in the years to come. And while it might be possible to turn fans into enemies through the use of overzealous litigation, it's probably a lot harder to do it the other way around.

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