Q. I am a Los Angeles Dodgers fan and I am sick and tired of not being able to watch my favorite team at home. I have DIRECTV and they don’t carry SportsNet LA. Only Charter does and I don’t want Charter. So my question is if I use a VPN to watch the Dodgers on MLB.TV, and avoid the blackout, will I get arrested? Is it illegal to do that? I can deal with other stuff, but I don’t want to get arrested for pete’s sakes just to watch a baseball game. Right? — Maury, Santa Monica, California.
Maury, SportsNet LA, the TV home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is only available in the Los Angeles area on the Charter Spectrum cable TV service. DIRECTV, and other area pay TV providers, refuse to carry the regional sports channel, saying Charter, which manages SportsNet LA, is asking for excessive carriage fees.
Consequently, as you note, only Charter subscribers can watch the Dodgers games at home in the LA market; everyone else is blacked out.
The dispute, which began six years ago, has prompted some baseball fans in LA to use VPNs to watch the Dodgers games on the league’s online service, MLB.TV. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a software that you can download that will enable you to use an IP address different from your own.
For instance, if you live in Santa Monica, you could insert an IP address in your Internet modem’s software supplied by the VPN company that would make it look like you live in Denmark. The cost of a VPN varies, but many services sell them for under $10 a month.
By using a VPN, you could subscribe to the MLB.TV plan for $121.99 this season, and watch every Dodgers game from your home in Santa Monica. Normally, MLB.TV would be required to blackout the in-market game because the regional channel in your market (SportsNet LA in Maury’s case) has the exclusive rights. But with the VPN, MLB.TV wouldn’t know you live in that market.
This is true for other markets as well. For example, a Washington, D.C. resident could watch the Washington Nationals on MLB.TV as could a New York Yankee fan in Manhattan and so on. This can be advantageous because you wouldn’t have to subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service to get the regional channel that airs your home team’s games.
MLB.TV professes to oppose the use of VPNs, and even says in its fine print that those who do could be fined and/or face “legal action.” However, I can not find a single instance where the league took anyone to court, much less prosecuted someone for using a VPN.
I don’t even know what law you would allegedly violate if you did use a VPN. Afterall, it’s not like you are stealing anything from the league by using one because you are paying the full subscription amount whether you watch your home team or not. The only difference is that you get to watch the games you want to watch.
At this point, I must acknowledge that I am not an attorney so please don’t count this as professional legal advice. But I do follow this industry very closely, and have for years, and I think I would know if the league ever decided to make this a criminal situation.
I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a specific law that would govern the use of a VPN to stream the games. Otherwise, the league would cite it, and use it, when it catches someone in violation.
MLB will cut off your MLB.TV subscription if you get caught; there are plenty of cases of that. But, Maury, I don’t see you getting arrested.
Final note: While there would seem to little or no concern of being criminally charged, there is the issue of whether this is the correct moral choice. Skirting the terms of your MLB.TV agreement might bother some people (myself, for example. I was raised Catholic, you know.), but maybe it doesn’t bother you.
It’s your call.
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— Phillip Swann