On June 16, 2020, World Trade Organisation ruled that the Government of Saudi Arabia is behind the piracy operation that has been illegally stealing content from the Qatar-based media group, beIN Sports.
Shortly after Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced the blockade in 2017, the Qatari broadcaster beIN SPORTS was blocked to its hundreds of thousands of subscribers in Saudi Arabia. Only two months later, a Saudi-based outfit, beoutQ, had begun broadcasting content stolen from beIn SPORTS. The signal was being transmitted using Saudi Arabia-based communications satellite operator, Arabsat.
BeoutQ developed into the sophisticated theft of intellectual property when it started putting set-top boxes on shelves and selling subscription packages. By this time, it had pirated numerous international sporting events including Super Bowl LII, the UEFA Champions League Final, the NBA Finals, multiple Formula 1 races, and all 64 matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In the published ruling, WTO said,
“Saudi Arabia has actively promoted and supported the beoutQ pirate operation since the beginning and has wholly breached, and is breaching, its obligations under international law to protect intellectual property rights.”
The dispute was brought to the WTO by Qatar on October 1, 2018 against Saudi Arabia’s failure to “provide adequate protection of intellectual property rights held by or applied for entities based in Qatar.”
In the summary of the request for consultations submitted to WTO by Qatar, it says,
“Among Saudi Arabia’s measures is a 19 June 2017 Circular, issued by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information together with the General Commission of Audio and Visual Media. This circular states that distribution of beIN media content and charging of related fees in Saudi Arabia “shall result in the imposition of penalties and fines and the loss of the legal right to protect any related intellectual property rights ….””
According to experts, intellectual property theft on this level could severely harm the business model that keeps the professional sports industry afloat. beIn SPORTS holds exclusive media rights in the Middle East for multiple sports events, including the FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon Championship. They’ve paid millions for those rights, and the money goes into hosting the championships and even paying the players.
“If people think there are no guarantees, that the rights they are buying are not enforceable, they are not going to buy them. The whole business model of sports would unravel very quickly,” said Mark Lichtenhein, Chairman of the Sports Rights Owners Coalition.
Several international sporting bodies and governments have condemned this outright theft of intellectual property.
In a joint statement by FIFA, the AFC, UEFA, the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Lega Serie A, LFP and the Premier League on the MarkMonitor publication of an investigative report into the operations of beoutQ, they said,
“The report confirms without question that beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat. Cutting off its access to transmission services would be a major step in the fight to stop beoutQ. We all, individually and collectively, remain committed to bringing an end to international sports piracy.”
UK’s Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), John Whittingale, said,
“we must protect our creative industries, especially as the UK looks to forge new and long-term partnerships in MENA and elsewhere around the globe. There is no doubt that these industries remain one of our proudest and most enduring success stories, but their value is slowly being destroyed by beoutQ.”
Saudi Arabia have refused to engage in the WTO dispute brought by Qatar, citing reasons of “national security.” However, the WTO dismissed Saudi Arabia’s argument, stating that,
“Theft of TV rights has nothing to do with a country’s national security, it is commercial theft, which in this case has continued for 3 years and is continuing.”
Separate to the WTO case, BeIn Sports have brought a $1bn lawsuit against Saudi Arabia in the form of an international arbitration. Mohammed Al Khulaifi, Head of Qatar’s legal team to the WTO, said,
“This will be the platform for BeIn Sports to seek the compensation for the harm that happened to the company.”
While the ruling clearly states that Saudi Arabia has been perpetrating theft of Qatari intellectual property, Saudi Arabia continues to deny it and has tried time and again to deliberately block any proceedings related to this case.
The ruling puts Saudi Arabia’s impending takeover of Premier League club Newcastle United in jeopardy. However, it is yet to be seen what the international community will do in this case to stop the piracy of commercial content.