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WTO rules Saudi Arabia ‘promoted’ pirate network beoutQ

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has ruled that Saudi Arabia actively promoted and supported pirate broadcaster beoutQ in contravention of the country’s obligations under international law to protect intellectual property rights.

In its much-anticipated report published today (Tuesday), the intergovernmental body said that the country is in breach of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This agreement stipulates minimum standards for how WTO member states regulate IP with regards to nationals of other WTO member states.

The body recommended that Saudi Arabia “bring its measures into conformity with its obligations”.

The report also states that Qatar, which brought the complaint to the WTO, has established that Saudi Arabia has not provided for criminal procedures and penalties to be applied to beoutQ despite the evidence establishing prima facie that beoutQ is operated by individuals or entities under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia.

BeoutQ has challenged the dominance of Qatari pay-television operator beIN Media Group and its beIN Sports premium channels. BeIN’s sports programming has been reproduced virtually in its entirety on the beoutQ platform.

The WTO said that Saudi Arabia had taken measures “that, directly or indirectly, have had the result of preventing beIN [Media Group] from obtaining Saudi legal counsel to enforce its IP rights through civil enforcement procedures before Saudi courts and tribunals”.

Rise in pressure

While the WTO’s findings were not made official until today, UK newspaper The Guardian reported last month that the report was expected to firmly establish Saudi Arabia as being behind the broadcasting operation and in breach of international law.

The ruling increases pressure on Saudi Arabia after recent moves by US and EU authorities to flag the country’s copyright infringements.

As part of the proceedings the English Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga, German’s Bundesliga as well as football’s global and European governing bodies Fifa and Uefa, submitted evidence against Saudi Arabia.

A group of eight major rights-holders, comprising Fifa, Uefa, the AFC and Europe’s top five football leagues, had previously tried and failed to take legal action against beoutQ in the Saudi Arabian courts.

BeIN Media Group has welcomed the report, with the company’s external legal counsel, Blackstone Chambers, calling it “a historic vindication of intellectual property rights”.

David Sugden, senior legal counsel and director of corporate affairs at beIN said: “As a result of the Saudi government’s actions, the only way for tens of millions of Saudi sports fans to watch most major international sport – including Newcastle United matches – is via illegal means”.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is behind a proposed £300m (€331m/$363.5m) takeover deal for Premier League club Newcastle United.

Fifa, football’s global governing body, welcomed the WTO report and aimed a broadside at the Saudi Arabian government. It said: “[We] demand that KSA takes the necessary steps in order that it conforms to its obligations under the Trips agreement with immediate effect in order to protect legitimate media-rights partners, such as BeIN, and also football itself.”

Uefa also welcomed the report, stressing it will go to “great lengths” to protect its property and support its partners. The German Football League (DFL) echoed these entiments, saying it “will not tolerate the violation of our, and our partners’, intellectual property rights”.

Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga stressed the league’s own struggles to seek legal counsel, saying that “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.”

Spanish success

The WTO report came on the same day the Spanish National Police shutdown another illegal IPTV streaming network in the country that had two million global paying subscribers.

The Spanish National Police was working with the support of Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union, and Eurojust, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation.

In response, both Spanish football’s LaLiga and the DFL commended the increased unity shown against piracy in the industry.