Five British men have been sentenced to a collective prison term of 30 years after they were convicted of running an illegal streaming service that offered pirated access to soccer matches.
The men were captured after one of their own employees was revealed to be an undercover agent with an anti-piracy organization, who subsequently turned them into police and sealed their fate.
Police say the five operated a streaming service called Flawless, which also went by the name Shared VPS, Optimal and Cosmic. For several years, the group offered thousands of streaming channels that were illegally obtained and distributed through the Internet, with subscription prices going for as little as £10 per month (about $12.30 per month).
Flawless and its streaming offshoots earned the group more than £7.2 million (around $8.92 million) in revenue between 2016 and 2021. Mark Gould, 36, the co-founder of Flawless, personally made £1.7 million (around $2.11 million) during that time, prosecutors said.
The streaming services drew immense interest from the British public because they offered access to Premier League soccer matches that couldn’t be received in parts or all of the United Kingdom due to local blackout rules.
To get the matches in front of viewers, the group sometimes hacked into legitimate accounts of streaming TV customers in other countries, then used those subscriptions to rebroadcast matches that were available in those areas.
At the height of the operation, Flawless counted more than 50,000 streaming subscribers, most located in the United Kingdom. To support their growing business, the group hired around three dozen employees. One of those workers was an undercover agent with an anti-piracy group who took detailed notes about the operation and eventually turned the five men into police.
Gould was one of four defendants to plead guilty in the case, and was given a prison sentence of 11 years. Another defendant, 36-year-old Christopher Felvus, was also sentenced to prison after being convicted on additional charges, including possession of child sex abuse images.
The other three defendants — Steven Gordon, Peter Jolley and William Brown — received prison sentences of various lengths. Brown was the only defendant to enter a plea of not guilty and take his case to trial; during the case, he tried without success to argue he was an undercover agent. The seven-week trial ended with a conviction.
A sixth defendant, Zak Smith, did not appear for a court hearing and is now the subject of an arrest warrant.
The Premier League is one of the key victims in the case, having suffered a substantial financial loss due to the pirate’s illegal business.
“Today’s sentencing is the result of a long and complex prosecution of a highly sophisticated operation,” Kevin Plumb, the general counsel of the Premier League, said in a statement. “The sentences handed down, which are the longest sentences ever issued for piracy-related crimes, vindicate the efforts made to bring these individuals to justice and reflect the severity and extent of the crimes.”
Plumb said the cases were “another concrete example of the clear links between piracy and wider criminality, a warning we repeatedly make.”
“While most Premier League fans enjoy watching our games in a safe way, those who were customers of these services were effectively supporting individuals involved in other sinister and dangerous organized crime,” Plumb affirmed. “This was a hugely challenging case, and we are extremely grateful for the hard work and expertise of the authorities who supported us, in particular the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Trading Standards, who coordinated the investigation and worked with law enforcement agencies across the country.”
The investigation was also supported by FACT, a British-based anti-piracy group that works to protect intellectual property on behalf of key industry stakeholders. (It was not immediately clear if the undercover employee who turned in the operators of Flawless was part of FACT.)
“FACT were delighted to support the Premier League on this landmark case, which is a powerful reminder that piracy is a serious crime with severe consequences,” Kieron Sharp, the CEO of FACT, said. “The successful result was made possible thanks to the invaluable support of numerous law enforcement agencies…I would like to express our sincere thanks to all those agencies for their invaluable support, which has resulted in the dismantling of a major organized crime operation and reiterates the importance of protecting the rights of creators and content owners.”
Sports leagues are not alone in tackling the scourge of online piracy: Broadcasters that bid millions of dollars for lucrative telecast rights to highly-sought games are also banding together to clamp down on the issue.
In early May, the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) said it was launching a new task force comprised of media companies and other interested parties that would be specifically focused on bringing down online pirates who illegally redistribute live sports and related programming.
The founding members of the Sports Piracy Task Force include international sports streamer DAZN and Qatar-based broadcaster BeIN Sports. The group claims sports broadcasters stand to lose around $28 billion in lost revenue each year due to piracy, citing a report published by Synamedia.
“The addition of DAZN and the creation of the ACE Sports Piracy Task Force marks a turning point for ACE and confirms yet again that we are the essential partner to anyone who recognizes the threat of piracy to their business,” Jan van Voorn, the executive vice president of ACE, said at the time. “With every new member, our global network becomes more powerful and more effective at targeting and shutting down the piracy operators that threaten the media, entertainment and live sports economy and consumers.”