In 2011, Zuffa tried to sue Justin.TV using title 47 of the U.S.C. The same law they used to sue a stream viewer for $12k in 2013. The court ruled that title 47 did not apply to internet streams, and dismissed the claim.
If you haven't read this piece
about the UFC successfully getting a $12k default judgement against a stream viewer for watching two UFC PPVs, you should do so for background information before starting.
To break it down, title 47 is about "stealing cable". It's a law designed to allow for civil remedy against people who get cable or satellite transmissions through modified boxes and other such means. In the case of Zuffa vs. Pryce, Zuffa claimed that as their PPV was an encoded broadcast, viewing it without authorization was in violation of title 47.
That raised some questions. From a layman's reading of the law, the liability would rest with the person who intercepted the signal; the person providing the broadcast for the stream. By the time the viewer watches the stream, they're no longer intercepting or receiving a satellite or cable transmission, instead they are receiving packets of data over the internet.
Bloody Elbow commenter Jonathan. provided some information about related cases, in which title 47 was ruled to be inapplicable to internet streams. My attention was particularly grabbed by the case of Zuffa v. Justin.TV. Justin.TV is/was one of the largest "legit" streaming sites.
There was a very interesting comment from the court in this case
838 F.Supp.2d 1102 (D.Nev. 2012), the court noted the peculiar attempt by the plaintiff to bring Communications Act claims based upon internet video streaming: "neither can the Court or the parties find an instance where a plaintiff has asserted Communications Act claims under facts similar to these. Rather, again, Communications Act claims are generally colloquially referred to as claims for ‘stealing cable.' In cases such as these for illegally streaming copyright protected video, such as against YouTube, plaintiffs simply assert copyright (and maybe trademark) claims, not cable theft."
In a related case, Ark Promotions, Inc. v. Justin.tv, Inc., YouTube, LLC and YouTube, Inc., No. 3:12-CV-131-RJC-DCK, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149283 (W.D.N.C. Oct. 16, 2012). The court noted:
"because Defendants did not intercept or receive a direct cable or satellite communication, Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted as a matter of law under § 553 or § 605. Plaintiff has not identified any authority supporting a finding that receipt of a retransmission of a communication by computer or the internet creates liability under the Communications Act."
Indeed, the Zuffa v. Justin.TV ruling was used as case law precedent in Ark Promotions, Inc. v. Justin.tv, Inc.
You can read more detail on these, and related, cases here
What does this mean for Zuffa suing stream viewers? Well, it means if one should choose to defend the allegations with a competent attorney, there is case law supporting that defence already in the books. That's not to say streaming is necessarily legal, or that Zuffa won't find some statute to use against you in court should you do it.
Bear in mind that while some courts in some jurisdictions rules that title 47 section 553 and 604 doesn't apply to streaming, that doesn't mean courts in other jurisdictions wouldn't rule otherwise. Rulings in one jurisdiction are not necessarily binding in others.
It should be noted that I have in my possession information from a similar case, filed in September 2013 in Georgia, this time relating to users of bestfreeufc.info, which the UFC apparently seized the records of
in August 2013. In this case, the UFC is suing under both title 47 (cable/satellite theft) and title 17 (copyright infringement). Title 17 is the statute under which similar cases tend to be prosecuted, however there are potentially some issues with using it to apply to streams, due to their ephemeral nature and the fact it can be argued the viewer never actually had possession of them.
In this case, the defendant has actually retained an attorney and appears to be planning to fight the case. I will post more on it as documents become available. Thanks to Tanya Liu for sending the relevant documents.
Disclaimer: None of the above should be interpreted or used as legal advice.