meerkat app logoIf you observed any of the coverage of last month’s South by Southwest gathering, it’s likely you came across the tech world’s hot new app, Meerkat. It allows iOS users to live stream video direct from their mobile device, creating a new category of content that falls somewhere between social media and a scheduled event broadcast.

Whether or not Meerkat succeeds, the category it creates will continue to blossom. Twitter has already launched a competing service, Periscope, and shut off Meerkat’s access to its firehose of user data. This immediate race to build a user base demonstrates how seriously those in the tech world are taking the emerging content space, as does the early adoption of the services by superstars like Madonna and social media celebrities, such as Gary Vaynerchuk. Even big brands like Red Bull are getting into this particular platform early on, aware of its marketing potential.

As with any promising content platform, though, there are those who will use these new services to circumvent copyright law.

Live streaming of scheduled events in real-time is already a major concern for rights holders, with high demand broadcasts such as sports events and live music concerts at the top of the list. As we’ve explained in previous posts, advertising on piracy sites is a lucrative business, and one whose value increases exponentially when a page racks up a large number of views. The one silver lining of the current incarnation is that these illegal streams aren’t easy to view on a mobile device.

Enter live-streaming platforms like Meerkat and Periscope, however, and pirates have a potential route onto every mobile device that can host their apps. The lag between iOS and Android is rarely long nowadays, so it seems likely that both operating systems will be served soon. This means that a majority of mobile users in the U.S. will have access to any stream the services make available and it isn’t a stretch to imagine movies, sports events, and even live concerts being broadcast without permission. Add in the fact that many of these streams will be in real-time and it becomes especially difficult to identify and remove unlicensed content, at least before the damage is done.

On the plus side, rights holders now have 15 years experience dealing with the fallout of the digital content explosion that spread so rapidly after Napster’s turn-of-the-century success. New platforms are now analyzed as much for their piracy potential as they are for marketing promise, with all of the legal and procedural preparation that comes with it.

Industry groups can make it clear to these new platforms from the outset that piracy is a prime concern that they must work hard to stamp out before it becomes a major problem. It’s far easier to curb unlicensed content when you start out from a position of respecting and protecting copyright, as systems can be put into place and developed as new infringement works its way around them. This is a lot harder if illicit use is allowed to roam free in the early days, as users come to expect – perhaps even feel entitled to – the ability to share whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of rights or ownership.

One of the main motivations to take a strong stance against piracy early on, aside from the obvious legal and ethical requirements which so many of today’s tech companies play it fast and loose with, could come in the form of the very content that the services will need if they’re to gain users early on. Star attractions like the NFL, which commands billion dollar contracts to broadcast its games on terrestrial television, could easily pull any official connections if live streaming services fail to remove unlicensed live streams for fans at games. The same logic could apply to any content provider with valuable highlights .

As Snapchat has shown by working with CNN, Comedy Central, and ESPN for its new ‘Discover’ section, high-profile content partners are going to be vital for new services to grow. Tolerating piracy will not compel those partners to join and could be an indirect service killer for platforms that allow unlicensed content to flow through their pipes.

Already, there have been reports of pirates making use of Meerkat and Periscope to share new Game of Thrones episodes. While the numbers are a far cry from the millions of illegal views that the latest series has racked up on torrent and file-sharing sites, the early signs are there that pirates are willing to experiment with live-streaming services, if the sites allow it. Now is the time for these live streaming apps to act and establish a reputation for protecting and promoting great content, rather than providing yet another place for pirates to rip it off.