After the impressive displays from Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in their Champions League semi-final games, Germany is waiting with bated breath for the all-German final. Many football fans will choose to watch the event online via live stream. But is live streaming legal?
[IMPORTANT UPDATE as of May 2017] The information below reflects the previously valid legal approach to streaming. As part of a landmark judgment of May 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that streaming of works protected by copyright is illegal as long as the original source is clearly illegal (ECJ, Case C-527/15). You can find the details about this latest judgment on streaming in our blog article at
Therefore, the text below may not reflect the current legal situation [END OF UPDATE]
What kinds of live streams are there?
Taking the Champions League final, there are three possibilities to watch the event via live stream. The Swiss television broadcaster SF2 will be showing the game on television and offering the possibility to watch it online via live stream. However, the broadcaster will be utilising so-called IP geo-blocking to prevent German IP-addresses from accessing the live stream. As a result, many internet users circumvent the geo-block by using foreign proxy servers and virtual networks (VPN) such as Cyberghost, OkayFreedom or Hotspot Shield.
It will also be possible to watch Sky’s broadcast online directly via foreign platforms. In this instance, there are two different kinds of live streaming.
The first kind of streaming is passive, meaning simply that a signal is received and an event can be watched directly on a computer. The second kind of streaming requires special software, which after being downloaded not only receives a signal but also transmits it. Such “P2P broadcasting” is very similar to the technology used by file sharing networks.
Is live streaming legal?
German lawyer and media law expert, Christian Solmecke, believes that using proxy services or VPN clients to stream sports events live does not breach German copyright law or criminal law. He argues that copyright law provisions are excluded on two grounds. Firstly, no copy of an event is made and secondly, the event is not being broadcast to others.
There are also no criminal sanctions for using technological tricks to circumvent a geo-block, provided such activity is undertaken purely for private interests.
Civil law consequences would only arise where it can be proven that such geo-blocks offer viable protection. But as internet users with only the most basic of IT knowledge can utilise proxy servers of VPN clients, it can hardly be asserted that geo-blocks offer such protection.
As far as geo-blocks are concerned, legal experts dispute the legal position and there is currently no clear case law.
The risk of football fans receiving copyright infringement warning letters for streaming the Champions League final is therefore low. In practice, streaming is difficult to pursue as copyright proprietors would be required to make two legal applications: one to the foreign proxy server operator and one to the German internet service provider.
Is Sky’s live stream legal?
This depends on what kind of streaming technique is used.
Christian Solmecke asserts that the passive reception of live streams is legal. This is because that although parts of an event are loaded on the computers random access memory (RAM), the user does not create a copy of the sports event within the meaning of Germany’s copyright law. The data is only temporarily stored and at no point is an entire video file downloaded.
It is important to remember that the German copyright law is concerned with whether copyright-protected works are copied. The act of watching the video is not in itself considered to infringe copyright.
However, as there are no judicial decisions on the matter of temporarily storing data, the legal position of live streaming sports events remains unclear.
In contrast, the use of P2P broadcasting services for streaming sports is illegal. As soon as an event is streamed the signal is also broadcast; in doing so the user will be illegally disseminating copyright-protected material. According to German copyright law such activities carry criminal sanctions and copyright proprietors are entitled to send costly copyright infringement warning letters to prevent the infringement.
P2P broadcasting services should be avoided. Their use represents a copyright infringement. On the other hand, the use and reception of passive live streams, as well as bypassing geo-blocks is legal.
However, as the legal position is in dispute and unclear, it may be worth football fans thinking twice before streaming the Champions League final and instead going to a local bar or pub with Sky TV reception. At least then, fans can enjoy the game together without worrying about infringing copyright law.