It is the first time that the High Court in London has issued a 'live' blocking order in a case concerning unauthorised accessing of copyright material online and follows a number of previous rulings in which rights holders, including the Premier League, have won court injunctions aimed at blocking internet users' access to copyright-infringing websites.
Mr Justice Arnold said in his ruling: "Blocking access to streaming servers is likely to be more effective than blocking websites which embed or link to streams from such servers both because streaming servers are the crucial link and because multiple websites typically embed or link to each server stream."
The blocking order issued will need to be implemented by BT, EE, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin. The Premier League was supported in its application by a number of other sports bodies, including football organisations in Scotland, Spain, Germany and France, the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union and the England and Wales Cricket Board, as well as the BBC.
Sports law and media rights expert Julian Moore of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the case shows that sports rights bodies are stepping up their efforts to preserve the value of the broadcasting rights in an increasingly challenging market.
"The aggressive approach taken by the Premier League case is in some ways similar to the steps Sony Six took in India to crackdown on unauthorised online streaming of the FIFA World Cup in 2014, which reportedly delivered benefits to the bottom line of the broadcaster, and reflects a couple of factors," Moore said.
"It reflects the fact that the value of the rights the Premier League has licensed for the broadcasting of matches has been rising, but also that there has been a reported drop in viewing figures for Premier League matches. This may be linked to the increasingly fragmented way in which people engage with content more generally, given changes in technology and the availability of alternative entertainment options for viewers. It is not a problem unique to the Premier League in the UK. A fall in NFL viewing figures in the US has also been reported."
"While there is little sports rights holders can do to address societal changes on viewing habits, we can expect them to take action to prevent armchair fans viewing matches on the cheap. This ruling will therefore be welcomed by rights holders as a significant step towards addressing online copyright infringement which can, at times, be a case of 'whack-a-mole'," he said.
According to the ruling, the blocking order granted will run from 18 March until 22 May 2017, when the Premier League season is due to end.
Flexibility is built in to the court order to allow the Premier League to identify any new servers being used to stream games illegally each match week, and notify the ISPs so as to adjust which servers to block access to. Servers used previously to stream matches that are no longer used for such purposes would no longer be blocked under the flexible arrangements provided for by the court.
Hosting providers are to be notified when their IP addresses are subject to blocking and those providers, affected website operators or streaming services and the ISPs' customers are free to challenge the order before the court.
At the end of the season, the "effectiveness" of the order will be assessed and it will be open to the Premier League to apply for a new blocking order for the 2017/18 football season "with any changes that may seem appropriate in the light of this season's experience", Mr Justice Arnold said.
"There is increasing evidence of football fans turning to streaming devices which access infringing streams as a substitute for paid subscriptions to services such as those offered by Sky and BT," Mr Justice Arnold said. "This undermines the value of [the Premier League's] rights and, if unchecked, is likely to reduce the revenue returned by [the Premier League] to football clubs, sports facilities and the wider sporting community. An added concern is the availability of live streams of Premier League match footage during [times that matches are being staged], which deters attendance at those matches."
"Four main elements are required to stream live content to consumers: a source feed of infringing footage (typically sourced from a cable or satellite decoder box which is being used to receive a licensed service, whether transmitted by Sky or BT in the UK or by another [Premier League] licensee outside the UK); a platform to manage distribution of the footage; a streaming server hosted by a hosting provider which actually transmits copies of the footage; and a user interface which a consumer can use to access one of those copies," the judge said. "The streaming server is the crucial link in the chain by which an unauthorised copy of footage of a Premier League match is transmitted to the consumer."
"A single server may be accessed using a number of different user interfaces. For example, the same stream on the same server may be accessed via multiple apps, websites and add-ons for set-top boxes. If access to that server is blocked, all of those access mechanisms will be disrupted," he said.
Mr Justice Arnold's blocking order was issued under section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.