Saudi Arabia directed to conform with IP obligations in WTO ruling on beoutQ
By Simon Ward
Sports broadcasters and governing bodies have today welcomed a ruling from the World Trade Organisation that holds the Saudi government responsible for piracy of broadcasts carried out by beoutQ, a network based in the country that has long been a bête noire of rights holders.
In the 125-page report issued on Tuesday, the WTO backed up claims made by various federations and leagues that the Saudi state promoted and supported beoutQ, which has been regularly accused of stealing international sports content.
Organisations that have led the charges against the pirate network include BeIN Media Group, the Qatar-based pay-television broadcaster, and top soccer bodies such as Fifa, Uefa, England’s Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga and Germany’s Bundesliga.
Having ruled that the Saudi government is in breach of international treaties, the WTO’s three-person dispute panel called on it to “bring its measures into conformity with its obligations under the TRIPS Agreement [on intellectual property].”
BeIN’s legal team have described the outcome as “a historic vindication of intellectual property rights," while Uefa said it was “clear that beoutQ’s broadcasts constitute piracy” of its matches and “are illegal.”
As well as intensifying the pressure on the Saudi government to clamp down on beoutQ, the ruling raises further doubts over whether a proposed controversial takeover of Premier League soccer club Newcastle United will go ahead.
While beoutQ ceased operations last year, its illegal boxes (with beoutQ branding on them) are still available, as are other IPTV devices that allow illegal streaming and downloading of content.
The WTO report maintained that the Saudi government has harboured the network and tolerated its activities for three years, and even sponsored 294 public display screenings of pirated matches from the 2018 World Cup held in Russia. It also cited promotion of beoutQ by Saud Al-Qahtani, a figure close to Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, in “governmental tweets.”
The panel supported the contention of last year’s investigation financed by the Premier League and several other major European sports bodies that the Saudi Arabia-backed satellite operator Arabsat, and specifically the Saudi state, was behind the distribution of beoutQ.
In addition, the government was found to have ignored take-down notices from the likes of the Premier League, Fifa, Uefa and BeIN, rejected the opportunity to take criminal action against beoutQ and blocked civil copyright infringement cases by putting pressure on nine Saudi law firms not to take up civil action sought by the English league and others.
Moreover, the beoutQ piracy is said to have continued despite complaints from the UK and US governments and the European Union.
At the end of April, Saudi Arabia was placed on a US government high priority watch list for its harbouring of beoutQ for a second successive year.
The WTO panel did rule that the Saudi government's defence of national security was justified in the case of BeIN being unable to obtain legal counsel to enforce its IP rights through civil enforcement procedures before Saudi courts and tribunals but not in the case of the non-application of criminal procedures and penalties to beoutQ for the unauthorised carriage of content.
The dispute of the last three years has played out against the backdrop of a bitter political and economic dispute between Qatar and other Middle East nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, with the small Gulf state having repeatedly and vehemently refuted allegations that it supports terrorism in the region.
Responding to the ruling, Stephen Nathan, QC for Blackstone Chambers and counsel for BeIN, said: “Today’s WTO ruling is a historic vindication of intellectual property rights. The decision is founded on rules that 164 nations have agreed to apply. The WTO has established that, since 2017, the Saudi government has played a central role in enabling and promoting beoutQ’s theft of world sport and entertainment – the most widespread and damaging piracy operations that the world has ever seen.
"Saudi Arabia’s breach of international law is clearly established; the damage to the Premier League, other rights-holders and broadcasters has been colossal and it has been brought about by Saudi Arabia’s promotion and support for the beoutQ piracy, coupled with its abstention from taking any meaningful steps to stamp it out as the WTO panel has held.”
Uefa was the first of the affected federations and leagues to respond, saying: “What is clear is that beoutQ’s broadcasts constitute piracy of Uefa’s matches and as such, are illegal. BeoutQ was hosted on frequencies transmitted by Arabsat and was promoted and carried out by individuals and entities subject to Saudi Arabia’s territorial jurisdiction.
“Those seeking to follow beoutQ’s example should be in no doubt that Uefa will go to great lengths to protect its property and support its partners, whose investment in football helps it to remain the world’s most popular sport from grassroots to elite level. Piracy not only threatens that investment but also the existence of professional sport as we know it. Today’s ruling shows clearly that no-one involved in audio-visual piracy should consider themselves above the rule of law."
Javier Tebas, the president of LaLiga, followed up, saying: "LaLiga welcomes the WTO’s ruling which indisputably establishes Saudi Arabia’s role in one of the most sophisticated and damaging piracy operations that has ever existed. Never before have we seen one of LaLiga’s attempts to protect its intellectual property deliberately blocked by a government. If Saudi Arabia wants to be taken seriously in world sport, it simply has to play by the rules.”
In a statement issued via the Saudi Press Agency, the country's government highlighted its national security defence, saying the WTO had acknowledged that the country "seeks to protect Saudi citizens and the Saudi population, Saudi government institutions, and the territory of Saudi Arabia from the threats of terrorism and extremism."
It added that the country's actions were "taken in time of... other emergency in international relations" based on evidence presented to the WTO by Saudi Arabia alleging Qatari violations of regional agreements.
The government also pointed to areas where the panel had rejected claims that Saudi law violated WTO rules and that it had supported the alleged piracy.
It said: "Saudi Arabia has a strong record of protecting intellectual property and is committed to applying its national law and procedures in full conformity with WTO rules."
The Premier League is currently reviewing the proposed £300 million ($377 million) takeover of Newcastle by a consortium fronted by British financier Amanda Staveley and 80 per cent financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
The deal with the club’s present owner Mike Ashley is in the final stages, with a deposit having been paid, but requires the approval of the league under its owners and directors test, and the matter has dragged on into the summer months, increasing the uncertainty over whether it will proceed.
In May, UK politicians called for an investigation into Saudi Arabia's harbouring of beoutQ but Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said the government was unlikely to block the sale of Newcastle as it was a “matter for the Premier League.”
BeIN has also raised concerns about the takeover in a letter to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters. It is one of the league's most important international broadcast partners, with a three-year deal for the Middle East and North Africa, running to 2022, worth £400 million.