'This is foul play and must be stopped' – drones issue reaches House of Lords – Racing Post

Tuesday, 14 December, 2021
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Such has been the focus on the Robbie Dunne and Freddy Tylicki cases that we have had little opportunity to explore other matters within racing these last couple of weeks.
In amongst the legal cases at the BHA’s headquarters and the High Court, a debate took place in the House of Lords regarding the usage of drones and what impact they are having on the intellectual property of racing and racecourses by streaming the coverage to in-running punters, as well as the disadvantage they put non-drone users at when betting on the exchanges.
We know that drone usage is widespread in racing with numbers increasing because of racing behind closed doors during Covid and due to in-running punters moving from using hospitality boxes to having a presence in the sky to gain a time advantage over other in-running players.
These drones are impressive devices costing over £20,000 in some cases and loaded with top tech such as high definition cameras and piloted by CAA-qualified people. Essentially, they are serious machines for serious operations who, according to my discussions with some of them this year, are winning hundreds of thousands of pounds using their time advantages.
As well as many in-running punters being at a disadvantage when competing against these drone operators, racecourses are most unhappy as they believe their media rights are being undermined by alleging these same operators are illegally offering their streams to the black market.
Arena Racing has been particularly vocal on the issue, while the Racecourse Association’s chief executive David Armstrong said racecourses “won’t sit back” and allow “breaches of intellectual property and our media rights” when asked about the issue at the start of the year.
The matter of drones was raised in the House of Lords by Viscount Astor, who asked when amendments would be made to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to take in sporting events, noting that “sporting bodies are losing valuable media rights income” and “just as important if not more so, is that the lack of copyright on events has resulted in a vast expansion of illegal gambling, leading to problem gambling and gambling harm”.
He added: “We do not want to criminalise the sports enthusiast for filming his favourite sporting event. We want to stop those who are selling the pictures on, and not only debasing media rights but affecting the growth of harmful gambling.”
Lord Lipsey, a non-executive director at the Starting Price Regulatory Commission, also spoke during the debate, focusing more on the in-built disadvantage for in-running players not using the drone streams, which are often 0.5 second faster than fast online streams and, in some cases, over a second quicker, an ocean of time in the fast-paced world of in-running betting.
“This is foul play, and it must be stopped,” he said. “One way of doing so would be to give the racecourses copyright in all pictures so that at least the droners paid up out of their ill-gotten gains. Another would be to make such filming of sporting events a criminal offence.
“The government will no doubt come to their own conclusions as to which route is the easiest. What is important is that they do not conclude that both routes are difficult and therefore do absolutely nothing about this scandal of legalised fraud.”
The strong words of Viscount Astor and Lord Lipsey mirror the feelings of many towards the use of drones for betting in racing, and it continues to be a headache for racecourse operators in particular about how to stop them flying, with the technology so good that the devices are often a long way from the actual tracks when filming the action.
Responding to the question, Lord Callanan, parliamentary under-secretary of state for the department of business, energy and industrial strategy, said amending the law to copyright sporting events was not possible, although he added that “if the businesses concerned were able to make a better case for government action, backed by persuasive data, of course we would consider what measures might be effective”.
He also outlined how the Gambling Commission had “found little evidence that illegal drone filming is linked to illegal gambling sites” and stated the review of the 2005 Gambling Act was addressing means of tackling illegal betting operators.
In the meantime, efforts to level the playing field have been taking place within the in-running community, with one drone operator understood to have opened up their streams to anyone who wants in, provided they all contribute equally to the running costs per day.
This egalitarian approach has made accessing drones affordable, with as many as 50 people believed to be on the stream at once, and has had the added benefit of knocking around four regular drones out of the sky with the costs of maintaining and flying them against the multi-access drone no longer worthwhile with their time advantage over other players eroded.
While the thought of numerous in-running punters using drones will unlikely come as music to the ears of racecourses, it seems that some bettors at least have had enough of the unfairness and tried to level the playing field.
However, anyone hoping to see drones disappear from our racecourses any time soon are unlikely to get what they desire.
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The Front Runner is our latest email newsletter available exclusively to Members’ Club Ultimate subscribers. Chris Cook, a four-time Racing Reporter of the Year award winner, provides his take on the day’s biggest stories and tips for the upcoming racing every morning from Monday to Friday