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As global piracy starts to bite, Asian solutions need cooperation and government

  • YouGov survey shows Asia has some of the most entrenched content piracy habits
  • Relative youth of pirate service users suggest a growing, long-term problem
  • Broadcasters want more help from rights-holders; everyone from governments

The “glorious media rights bubble” is about to burst. This was the warning of beIN Media Group chief executive Yousef Al-Obaidly in October, driven by his frustration at the industry’s failure to deal with piracy and rogue broadcasting service beoutQ in particular.

“Because of beoutQ in Mena – and piracy generally – as the largest buyer of sports rights in the world, we now regard all sports rights as non-exclusive and our commercial offers will reflect that. I am also confident that other broadcasters – of all shapes and sizes – will make similar devaluations, while many once-premium rights will remain unsold.”

At the Asia Video Industry Association’s Video Summit 2019, his sentiment was echoed by Henry Tan, chief executive of Malaysian pay-television broadcaster Astro: “In our marketplace our potential market for premium content is around 40 per cent of the population, but a recent survey in Malaysia shows one in four homes are using pirated services. What this means for Astro is piracy has devalued our market and margins for premium content, and I tell my team negotiating rights deals that they should look at sharp discounts accordingly.”

Piracy shows no signs of slowing in Asia

Astro has been a vocal proponent of anti-piracy efforts in Asia for several years, and for good reason: the survey Tan references, conducted by YouGov on behalf of AVIA’s Coalition Against Piracy, showed that Malaysia has one of the most entrenched content piracy habits in the region.

What hurts broadcasters the most is the survey’s revelation that – among those who used illicit streaming devices (ISD) like TV boxes – 64 per cent said they cancelled some or all of their legitimate pay-televison subscriptions.

And the problem isn’t confined to Malaysia. ISD usage in Asia was found to be highest in Taiwan, at 35 per cent of the population, followed by the Philippines at 28 per cent, and Hong Kong at 20 per cent. The distribution and accessibility is worrying, with 50 per cent of consumers claiming they bought their ISDs from mainstream Southeast Asian e-commerce stores.

Half of Asian online content consumers have also accessed pirate streaming or torrent sites to avoid paying subscriptions.

The youth of users shows that ISD usage is a growing problem. The AVIA survey revealed ISDs are particularly popular with 18-to-24-year-olds, with up to 76 per cent of them cancelling legitimate subscription services as a result of owning ISDs.

BeoutQ’s ongoing assault on beIN, which began as part of a geopolitical dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where beIN is based, has also started to take its toll on Asian broadcasters, according to AVIA general manager Neil Gane, who tells SportBusiness: “We are identifying the beoutQ signal on ISDs across all of Asia Pacific – and we know from reports from our partners that this is not isolated. This ‘pirating the pirate’ has a very real downstream impact on local licensees in Asia.”

The imminent rollout of 5G mobile networks, with its potential to worsen the situation, is another worry for rights-holders and broadcasters in the region. Gane believes that, as 5G becomes more widespread in Asia, users will view more video content on their mobile devices outside their homes, which will result in further consumption of pirated content.

What’s the region’s response?

Tan believes more needs to be done by rights-holders to help broadcasters. He tells SportBusiness: “Content rights-holders have to start changing legacy rules and practices to aid us in this war against piracy. Pirate services are attractive as they sometimes have a better aggregation of content compared to broadcasters like us, with full stacking and seasons on their platforms, while some rights-holders are still withholding a lot of rights from us, or worse, using these rights to negotiate for better deals.”

He believes rights-holders need to put more boots on the ground in Asia to fight piracy: “I don’t understand why rights-holders aren’t putting a portion on their budgets for a real local presence. Surely their intellectual property must be valuable to them. As broadcasters, we are but temporal custodians of their content, but the customer is a long-term asset for them. For Astro, our teams work with local regulators daily to monitor pirate sites and block anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 of them monthly. The bandwidth spent must be daily, not just a biannual affair at summits.”

As the biggest fish in the rights-holder pond when it comes to media rights, the English Premier League has much to lose if piracy grows unchecked, which is why it opened its first international office in Singapore in January this year.

Kevin Plumb, the Premier League’s director of Legal Services, says to SportBusiness: “Since we opened our office in Singapore, we have been able to start more successful legal action across the region. It is about taking action against all types of piracy – not just about blocking websites but also blocking access to the apps and add-ons used on ISDs and taking action against sellers of these illegal devices.”

He believes one of the biggest changes seen in 2019 is a greater awareness of the problem, and more effort from Asian government and local authorities: “In Thailand, we supported the Department of Special Investigation to carry out the largest ever piracy-related police operation in Thailand, which led to the shut-down of several major websites that illegally streamed movies and football matches with links to online gambling and pornography.

In Singapore we have seen the government take a proactive step to address the problem with a change in law, and in Malaysia there is now a quick and efficient process for website blocking. Entertainment and sport content piracy is an issue in Asia, but over the last 12 months there has been encouragement for anti-piracy efforts.”

While not all parties agree on whether efforts have been sufficient, all believe that changing Asian perceptions of piracy can only come when governments play their part.

Henry Tan, chief executive of Malaysian pay-television broadcaster Astro. (Image credit: Astro)

Tan says: “Pirate sites are very savvy in how they use tech platforms such as Google and Facebook to market and interact with users, sometimes even as far as instructing them on how to send payments their way. From Astro’s point of view our role allows us to talk to our content partners, given we sign the cheques for the rights, but we have very limited reach with the tech platforms. That’s where governments come in with regulators and laws, after listening to all parties, to mediate and come up with a framework to deal with the issue.”

Melcior Soler, director of audiovisual at LaLiga, agrees: “It is essential that content creation and distribution companies are united, whilst it is equally important that governments and legislators become urgently involved so as to allow us to wage an effective, head-on battle against the illegal distribution of audio-visual content. We must protect the flexible legal frameworks that advocate efficient mechanisms to protect content in real time. To achieve this, public-private sector collaboration is a must.”

Tan leaves a bleak future for governments that don’t direct their populations against the habit of content piracy, warning: “In Asia, governments generally play paternalistic roles, and they should maintain that when it comes to piracy. I question whether Asian governments have actually fully considered the ramifications of their populations going into black holes of content on the internet where they have no idea what’s being watched, what’s being done, and worst of all, no ability to reach out to their masses via those platforms.”

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