US and UK governments begin clampdown on Saudi Arabia's beoutQ
By Jonathan Rest
Saudi Arabia has come under intense pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to shut down beoutQ, the pirate sports broadcaster based in the country, and, according to BeIN Media Group, the international pay-television broadcaster whose premium sports content has been stolen by the platform, backed by that country.
In the past 24 hours, the US government has slammed Saudi Arabia in Special 301 Report, designating beoutQ a 'Notorious Market', while in the UK, an urgent demand was made in Parliament for the government to take action against Saudi Arabia’s theft of world sport and entertainment.
The political interventions come as BeIN Media Group chief executive Yousef Al-Obaidly, writing in an exclusive Op-Ed for Sportcal, published today to coincide with World Intellectual Property Day, called on "all governments who have an interest in the rule of law, international trade, and the protection of intellectual property, to take a stand" against "Saudi Arabia’s industrial scale piracy... before the contagion spreads."
Two months ago a range of major US sports and entertainment bodies and international broadcasters called on the US government to take immediate action against beoutQ.
BeIN, the Sports Coalition (on behalf of NBA basketball, NHL ice hockey, college sport's NCAA, NFL American football, MLB Baseball and the US Tennis Association) and European pay-TV giant Sky and France's Canal Plus made separate submissions to the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), part of the executive office of the US president that is responsible for advancing US trade policy and resolving disputes with countries that do not follow the rules of international trade agreements.
The groups individually called for USA to identify Saudi Arabia as a 'priority foreign country' to be placed on a watch list. The two countries enjoy particularly strong ties.
The submissions to the US government specifically stated that beoutQ has continued to operate its pirate operation in Saudi Arabia with the full knowledge of the country's government.
Now the USTR has published two reports that directly condemn and call for an end to the Saudi-based piracy operation.
The 301 Report placed Saudi Arabia on the 'priority watch list' for its failure to address longstanding IP concerns and the further deterioration of IP protection and enforcement within its borders, while the 2018 Notorious Markets List named beoutQ as one of 33 online markets from around the world to make the blacklist.
The USTR specifically singled-out beoutQ and Arabsat, the Saudi-based satellite provider that is distributing the service, noting: "While Saudi officials have confirmed the illegal nature of beoutQ’s activities and claim to be addressing this issue by seizing beoutQ set-top boxes, such devices nevertheless continue to be widely available and are generally unregulated in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also has not taken sufficient steps to address the purported role of Arabsat in facilitating beoutQ’s piracy activities."
On the same day, beoutQ was specifically raised in the UK's House of Commons by Alistair Carmichael, member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland, and formerly the secretary of state for Scotland, who said: “What steps are we taking to protect the intellectual property rights of UK businesses and sports interests, and will we use our trade policy to hold to account countries such as Saudi Arabia that are allowing the theft of our country’s intellectual property in that way?”
Carmichael added: “The government have got to challenge their friends in Saudi Arabia and get them to take more action to protect the future of the sports and entertainment industries, and ensure that the football teams which we all love can continue to thrive.”
In response, George Hollingbery, the UK minister of state for trade policy, promised that the government would “continue to make representations to Saudi Arabia on that point,” adding: “The UK intellectual property regime is respected around the world, and our local, European and international commitments produce one of the tightest and most respected regulatory regimes for IP worldwide. We believe that is the right system, and we will insist that it is honoured by others, particularly if we are to do trade deals with them.”
Reacting to the US and UK government stances, Al-Obaidly said: “With the European Commission also fully aware of the matter and the World Trade Organisation having established a dispute settlement panel to investigate it, the weight of the international community is coming to bear on Saudi Arabia to stop breaking the rule of law and to end its safe haven for piracy that has now spread across the Middle East, Europe, the US and around the world.”
BeIN has already launched an international investment arbitration claiming over $1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia, and in January set up a website, which, it claimed, “discloses mass dossier of evidence against the Saudi Arabia-supported piracy operation that has stolen the commercial rights of sports and entertainment brands for 18 months.”
Earlier this year, Fifa, soccer’s world governing body, sent out a public statement on behalf of itself, European soccer’s Uefa, the Asian Football Confederation, England's Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga and Germany’s Bundesliga, condemning beoutQ.
However, BeIN now finds itself locked in a legal battle with the AFC, after soccer's regional governing body unilaterally removed the territory of Saudi Arabia from the broadcaster's exclusive Middle East and North Africa contract.
The AFC is now streaming the matches involving Saudi Arabian teams played at home in AFC competitions free of charge on its geo-blocked digital channels, AFC Champions League Facebook Live and AFC YouTube, in a move designed to help achieve its aim of “protecting the rights of its commercial and broadcast partners and to tackle attempts to illegally exploit those rights wherever it occurs.”
Every game of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates - BeIN holds exclusive rights in MENA - was pirated by beoutQ.
BeIN responded by launching "a major international legal dispute against the Confederation for material breach of its multi-million dollar broadcast agreement."
The beoutQ controversy is playing out against the backdrop of a bitter political and economic dispute between Qatar and other Middle East nations, including Saudi Arabia, with the small Gulf state having repeatedly and vehemently refuted allegations that it supports terrorism in the region.
BeoutQ’s piracy of BeIN’s broadcasts has previously affected a wide range of sports properties, including soccer’s Fifa World Cup, Uefa Champions League, the Premier League, LaLiga, the Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1, plus the organisers of tennis’ grand slams, the men's ATP and women's WTA, and the FIA, the governing body for motor sports, including Formula 1.
While beoutQ has been the international focus in the fight against piracy, rights-owners are facing IP challenges on numerous fronts.
LaLiga and Denmark’s RettighedsAlliancen, which protects licensees in the country, announced yesterday that a Danish court had ruled that sites offering illegal streams of live sport should be blocked.
Between February 2018 and February 2019, RettighedsAlliancen registered 18 million visits to the most popular illegal live sports services in Denmark, an increase of 15 per cent.
RettighedsAlliancen and LaLiga have asked the court to order the Danish Internet Service Providers to block the nine most popular illegal live sport streaming services.
Melcior Soler, LaLiga’s audiovisual director, said: “Audiovisual piracy is illegal and has significant consequences, not only for us, but for the league and the future of the game, so we are very happy that RettighedsAlliancen has joined us in the fight. We know that Denmark is at the forefront of the development of digital tools to fight online piracy, and this is a big issue for us.
“We are now looking forward to seeing the effects of the blockings and hope that they can serve as an example for other countries, so that we can stand together in the fight against online piracy.”
In the UK, the Premier League said its anti-piracy programme has blocked or removed 175,000 domestic streams and removed an additional 130,000 streams and 300,000 clips globally this season, helping to protect its multi-billion pound rights deals.
As with LaLiga, the Premier League has been fighting the piracy battle beyond its borders, recently supporting Spanish police and Europol in operations in Europe, working with Thai authorities in their raids against a network of illegal websites, and just this month successfully obtaining a blocking order in Singapore in relation to eight prolific pirate websites.
Kevin Plumb, the Premier League's director of legal services, added: “The high-quality football put on by our clubs attracts fans to watch the Premier League but IP Protection plays a key role in ensuring as many fans as possible watch through the right channels. In this context, it is extremely pleasing that UK live Premier League viewing figures have increased 7% this season.
“We have invested in cutting edge technology, combined with wide-ranging anti-piracy actions to make it as difficult as possible for football piracy to operate in the UK. Globally, we are doing more than ever to protect our content and support our rights holders.”