Piracy has long been a problem for content producers and broadcasters in the region, which remains behind markets including Europe and the US in terms of fighting the threat.
But more recently there has been growing room for optimism, with initiatives from regional broadcasters and the MENA Broadcast Satellite Anti-Piracy Alliance, which was formed by a number of broadcasters and satellite operators in March 2014, helping to take the fight to the pirates.
Indeed, in the past few months there have been several victories from regional pay-TV operator OSN, which is increasingly quick to act against individuals or groups which illegally air content in the MENA region for which OSN holds the rights.
In late June, the Abu Dhabi Court convicted the administrator of a pirate website for illegally uploading torrents and enabling illegal streaming of copyrighted television series, movies, and misusing OSN’s intellectual property rights. The pirate was sentenced to six months in jail followed by deportation to his home country and was also ordered to pay AED 50,000 as compensation to OSN for copyright and trademark infringement.
This followed a series of successes in April when OSN announced that it had conducted more than 316 raids with the support of government authorities.
OSN worked with the authorities to swoop down on illegal Dish TV services and the unauthorised distribution of IPTV services.
While these successes deserve praise, it is clear that the scale of the problem is so great that much work remains to be done. Indeed, according to estimates by the International Data Corporation, TV piracy, through the use of illegal set-top boxes, unauthorised VPN subscriptions, and torrent downloads, costs over US$750 million in losses to the content and consumer product creation industries in the Middle East and Africa every year.
However, Nora Bakhorji, MBC Group’s anti-piracy executive, is optimistic about the potential impact of the group. “Since we started the coalition in 2014, we’ve had many successes. The coalition was built with only one aim in mind, which is to join the forces of the major players in the MENA region and combat piracy. We have developed policies and strategies and have built and nurtured a solid relationship with the members. We have been meeting for almost two years now and have come up with takedown policies where we all try to work together to remove these channels off air. As a coalition, we have successfully taken down numerous pirating channels up until today. We work together with the satellite distributors in order to avoid the legal route,” she says.
“We currently have a good working relationship with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi governments. Proactive engagement of the government, through the implementation of strict laws and raising public awareness, is vital to fighting this battle,” she adds.
In terms of which countries are worst affected by piracy, MBC’s experience appears to match the action taken by pay-TV peer, OSN. Bakhorji says: “The MENA region is suffering as a whole; there are many individuals who are willing to steal from the talented and successful people. For example, Egypt has great expertise in the film industry, great legacies and a large talent pool. It is a large target to many pirates. It will take time to create public awareness, governments are willing but progress is slow.”
However, it remains difficult to measure the impact of some of these actions, as some of the pirate channels that are forced to stop broadcasting often resume operations after a certain length of time. “Some of those pirate channels either resume playing our content after withholding for some time, or reappear with different names or even move to different distributors, so there is no definitive answer as to whether piracy is increasing, decreasing or remains the same,” she says.
Furthermore, in terms of general trends in piracy, Bakhorji says that there has been no clear or fixed pattern as to how TV or film piracy has been changing. “It has been constantly fluctuating, sometimes the pirating of shows or movies is on the rise and sometimes it remains the same. We have jointly collated forces with other distributors and are keeping a close eye on these pirating channels. We managed to exert pressure on a lot of channels and shut them down. However, some either reappear with different names or on different frequencies. It is an ongoing battle.”
Sam Barnett, CEO of MBC, has previously described piracy by illegal FTA (free to air) satellite operators as the piracy equivalent of “aircraft carriers”. Compared with IP-based piracy, illegal satellite operators do more harm to MBC as they broadcast content to millions of people, without owning the necessary licences to do so.
Hassan Ghoul, regional director, MENA at the IABM, agrees that satellite is the broadcast platform most affected by piracy in the Middle East and North Africa. “In our region the satellite platform is the most dominant of all platforms and this is where the main content providers are putting their content – their expensive content – this is where they are transmitting their content and this is where they expect to get their income from. When some of the offending companies are using the same platform to deliver that content, it directly takes from their share,” he says.
Bakhorji explains how MBC is tacking this kind of piracy. “For free-to-air platforms, we can only fight piracy through anti-piracy methods after the piracy happens, and hence we can only be reactive to piracy threats. Active engagement with government and anti-piracy companies, to counter the evolving piracy threats is key. Pay television platforms can utilise the latest technologies to prevent piracy.”
For FTA broadcasters such as MBC, the best course of action is often to work with the satellite operators and encourage them to stop working with broadcasters that are airing content illegally. Industry sources claim that the number of channels broadcasting unlicenced content remains significant although the legitimate broadcasters have already been successful in getting many of these channels shut down.
Nick Grande, managing director of Channel Sculptor, adds that as the best satellite operators remove illegal broadcasters from their platforms, they tend to migrate a smaller pool of platforms that are still inclined to turn a blind eye to piracy. “It is becoming more and more evident that certain satellite operators are more willing to condone these channels than others.” The problem persists because at present there is not a regulatory block for these channels. “Yes you can sue locally to try to get the channels shut down but it is very difficult in some markets to do that, and the channel can just move to another market and uplink from another location. So you are really beholden to the satellite operators to actually respect the ownership of the content,” Grande says.
Realistically, most industry insiders admit that piracy is an ongoing problem that can probably never be completely eradicated, but rather just kept in check.
“Piracy can never be abolished as long as the consumers are willing to engage in piracy,” Bakhorji says.
Ghoul says: “It’s a never-ending game. We develop ways to fight piracy and to counteract piracy and the fight against piracy becomes more powerful, but then this is followed by the pirates themselves becoming more powerful.
“There is always a way around what has been developed to fight piracy and the pirates are always very clever in finding ways around the methodologies and the systems that are put in place to fight it. It’s a cat and mouse game.”
While crackdowns by the authorities in conjunction with groups such as the Anti-Piracy Coalition are important, Ghoul adds that it is also important to remind end users who use pirated material about the impact that their actions have.
“It is very important that the end users themselves understand the issue with piracy because they decide whether they want to go for pirated or legitimate content. There are a lot of efforts to educate those viewers that could help with this and this is an important development to continue.”
Ghoul highlighted OSN ‘Do the Right Thing’ campaign as a good example of a broadcaster educating the market about the damage caused by piracy; how it destroys the creative process and would ultimately prevent the large content providers from offering top quality content.
Nick Grande, managing director of Channel Sculptor, brings a different perspective. According to Grande, an issue that contributes to piracy of Arabic content in the region is the lack of a clear and well-organised market for Arabic content.
“Based on my understanding from talking to the broadcasters, the issue is much more focused on Arabic content. There’s massive leakage of value on re-broadcasting of Arabic content. But the issue isn’t so much encryption as the lack of prevention measures in place when it comes to rebroadcasting or unauthorised broadcasting of unlicenced content.”
Grande says that the way content, particularly locally produced content, is brought and sold in the MENA region is a cause of much frustration. “If you want to buy international content you to abroad to MIP, but if you want to buy regionally produced content you’re going to a man with a suitcase - there just isn’t that same marketplace.
“Of course you have got the major producers of content who tend to have to coordinate the licencing of their own content directly but it is a case of dealing with a lot of individuals –There isn’t really a commoditised market place in the same way there is for international content, so it makes it harder to track rights,” Grande says.
OSN takes fight to the pirates
OSN scored big wins in its fight against television piracy across the region in April 2016 having conducted more than 316 raids with the support of government authorities.
Marking the World Intellectual Property Day (World IP Day) on April 26, OSN upped the ante in its fight to curb the menace of TV piracy with concerted plans to swoop down on both illegal Dish TV services as well as the unauthorised distribution of IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) services. OSN champions anti-TV piracy by spearheading the Anti-Piracy Coalition with leading satellite service providers.
OSN joined hands with authorities in all GCC countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, as well as in Egypt and Jordan to conduct the anti-piracy raids. This resulted in a significant reduction in the illegal distribution of pirated TV services.
In major wins, several unauthorised operators were fined, shops closed and equipment confiscated. More than 86,487 illegal videos were removed from YouTube/Dailymotion, and over 2,272 advertisements of pirated boxes were removed from online markets. Further, 829 FTA (Free to Air) channel copyright infringements were detected and reported back to the satellite operators/distributors.