NEW YORK, Feb 2 (Reuters Legal) - With the Super Bowl just four days away, the U.S. government has seized 10 popular Internet domain names that illegally streamed live sports and pay-per-view events on the Internet.
Court filings say the websites provided links to give users easy access to other sites that host pirated, copyrighted telecasts from the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc and Ultimate Fighting Championship, which involves mixed martial arts.
The so-called linking sites provided access to web channels that displayed live sports accompanied by paid advertising. Some sites also offered viewers an "elite stream" which promised uninterrupted, ad-free broadcasts in exchange for a monthly fee.
Tuesday's seizures were justified because the websites were "used to commit and facilitate criminal copyright infringement and contain evidence of that crime," Daniel Brazier, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in an affidavit.
In the affidavit, the agent described alleged piracy activities occurring on various websites, and requested a civil search warrant to seize the sites' domain names. The names, which correspond with a string of numbers equated with a computer address, are on file with central registries in California.
The seizure of the domain names mean that anyone who types them in their computer browser will be directed to a site decorated with law enforcement badges and an announcement that the site is now owned by the U.S. government.
The websites are atdhe.net, channelsurfing.net, firstrow.net, hq-streams.com, hq-streams.net, ilemi.com, iilemi.com, iilemii.com, rojadirecta.com and rojadirecta.org.
Prosecutors estimated that sports leagues and broadcasters lose millions of dollars annually from illegal streaming.
The court filings added that since sports matches are only valuable when they are live, a time-consuming copyright action would not have been an effective remedy.
"With the Super Bowl just days away, the seizures of these infringing websites reaffirm our commitment to working with our law enforcement partners to protect copyrighted material and put the people who steal it out of business," Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Wednesday's announcement represents the second wave of domain name seizures by the federal government in recent months. In November, ICE seized a group of sites like borntrade.com that offered copyrighted music and bootleg goods such as fake designer handbags.
The domain name seizures have been controversial with some. Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, equates the seizing of domain names with wiping a place off the map.
"There are First Amendment Concerns," she said, noting that a given website may contain non-infringing material from different contributors that nonetheless gets wiped out when a domain name is seized.
Legislation was proposed in Congress last fall that would streamline the seizure process and make it easier to prevent the owner of a seized domain name from moving the pirated content to a website with a different name. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits bill, strongly supported by the entertainment industry, almost passed in the Senate but was halted by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden who compared it to a "bunker-busting cluster bomb when what you really need is a precision-guided missile."
The case is U.S. v. The Following Domain Names: HQ-Streams.com et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-mag-00262.
For the U.S. government: Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas Brown and Christopher Frey.
For the websites: not immediately available.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel of Reuters and Jeff Roberts of Reuters Legal; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman of Reuters)