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Mayweather and Pacquiao: The Perfect Storm for Piracy?

When Manny Pacquiao fights Floyd Mayweather on Saturday, millions are expected to pay big bucks to watch it on cable.
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/ Source: NBC News

When Manny Pacquiao fights Floyd Mayweather on Saturday, millions are expected to pay big bucks to watch the bout on cable and a select few will drop thousands to see it live. But when even the cheap seats are exorbitantly expensive, many will turn to a third option: watching for free on the Internet and through new services like Periscope and Meerkat.

"This could be one of the biggest live-streamed events, at least from the piracy side," Ernesto Van der Sar, founder of the website TorrentFreak, told NBC News. "I think it will be bigger than the Super Bowl and the World Cup."

Not only is this a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event with major appeal in the Philippines — where Pacquiao was born — and the rest of the world, it's also the most expensive pay-per-view match in boxing history.

Cable subscribers will have to pony up $89.99. The cheapest ticket to Saturday's match at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas is selling for more than $3,800 on StubHub. Neighborhood bars will have to charge high cover fees to make up for the commercial license to screen the event, which can cost more than $5,000, or risk getting sued.

Many Twitter users have already predicted what is going to happen on fight night.

But do people really want to watch live sports on their phones? Doug Davis, entertainment lawyer and son of legendary music producer Clive Davis, wanted to know. He was sitting in the front row of a Knicks game in early April when he decided to pull out his phone and start broadcasting to Periscope.

To his surprise, hundreds of people watched, with several clamoring for a glance of Spike Lee. When the director walked by, Davis told NBC News, the Periscope users "went crazy."

"This is the worst team in basketball playing in a game that didn't matter," Davis told NBC News. "There was an electricity to it. Imagine what the response is going to be like at the fight. It's going to be huge."

It's possible that someone streaming a boxing match or basketball game could get kicked out of the stadium for violating the terms of the ticket purchase, according to Marc Edelman, who teaches sports and intellectual property law at Baruch College.

With ringside tickets for Pacquiao-Mayweather climbing to more than $350,000, however, it's hard to imagine the MGM Grand Garden Arena booting high-rollers from the match.

"What are ushers going to do, run around and tell people to put their phones down?" Davis said.

Legal issues

HBO, which is jointly airing the fight with Showtime, had to send take-down notices to Periscope when people streamed the first few episodes of "Game of Thrones."

A Periscope spokesperson told NBC News that the company reviews complaints and takes down content that violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Meerkat has an automated system for flagging and taking down illegal streams, a spokesperson told NBC News, and "has yet to receive one request to take down a stream for copyright infringement."

In the past, sites like YouTube have not been liable for hosting copyrighted material as long as they take it down when notified about it. Live sports, however, is a different beast from television shows like "Game of Thrones."

"By the time you send a properly formatted complaint and it's received and the feed is taken down, the fight is over," Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School, told NBC News.

Other sports have to deal with this problem, too. Bob Bowman, president of business and media for Major League Baseball, has stressed he will be watching Periscope and Meerkat to see how they handle illegal streams. (The league stopped short of banning the app at games.)

Boxing fans who film their TV screens are taking a much bigger risk than those who stream from the fight, both Lemley and Edelman said. That is because the fight on HBO and Showtime is a copyrighted broadcast. While live-streaming from events is still a legal gray zone, there have been plenty of instances of people getting arrested for streaming TV feeds.

Often, the individuals who get targeted by law enforcement are people who profit from websites that display ads alongside the illegal streams, Edelman said.

Right before the Super Bowl in 2012, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it had seized 307 websites that live-streamed sports and sold fake NFL merchandise in "Operation Fake Sweep."

But just because someone isn't making money doesn't mean they can't be successfully sued or arrested for pointing their phone at the TV.

"If a sports league decides they want to stop this practice in its incipiency, they very well might make a test case out of anyone who is doing it, even if they are not profiting from it," Edelman said.

Nobody can be sure of what will happen on Saturday. Never before has there been a sporting event this highly anticipated and expensive. Van der Sar isn't so sure Periscope will be a huge factor, mostly because he doesn't think people will want to watch a poor quality feed on a tiny screen. But the high pay-per-view fee will undoubtedly drive a lot of people to illegal streams, especially abroad.

"There will be lots of people in the Philippines who won't want to pay a month's salary to watch," Van der Sar said.

Davis, however, thinks Periscope could be a game-changer.

"Coming out of the music business, I know that if consumers are given a free option, they are going to take that option," he said. "I think this is the moment that Periscope comes to the masses."