Buried treasure

As media and broadcast industries struggle under alarming piracy rates, initiatives are yielding results.
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission


While the Middle East media and broadcast industries continue to struggle under alarming rates of piracy, a number of initiatives led by international trade and commerce groups are beginning to yield results in the region.

One of the biggest challenges facing the ongoing development of content delivery services in the Middle East is piracy. The pay TV sector is perhaps the highest profile victim in this respect, suffering millions of dollars in lost revenues as a result of the spread of hacked access cards and illegal decoders.

In Egypt, where pirated pay TV signals outnumber legal transmissions by three to one, a religious scholar has even appeared on TV commercials reminding the majority that pirating broadcast signals is forbidden by Islamic law.

The problem spreads further creating some indirect challenges for the industry. Investments in content are undermined by pirated movies, TV shows and music, which are widely available as hard-copy counterfeits and via a number of online sources.

Rotana's head of digital entertainment, Yousef Mugharbil, recently made the remarkable claim that his company loses one dollar for every dollar it makes due to piracy.

The situation may be bad but the region and indeed the industry, is not alone in suffering at the hands of counterfeiters.

In February, the UAE hosted the fourth Global Conference to Combat Counterfeiting and Piracy. After the event, which attracted representatives from Interpol, the World Customs Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), 25 recommendations were handed down in a document grandly named 'The Dubai Declaration'.

These recommendations called for increased awareness in free trade zones of the exploitation they are open to from counterfeiters, the raising of public and political awareness and improved co-operation between businesses, governments and enforcement authorities.

While the scope of the Global Congress was broad, the entertainment and media industry was well represented.

David Benjamin, senior vice president of Universal Music and co-chair of the International Chamber of Commerce's BASCAP initiative (Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy), argued that a coordinated assault was required to counteract the challenge of piracy.

"Corporate responsibility does not just refer to shareholders, but to all entities involved in delivering goods to the marketplace. In a global, digitised world, the cooperation and good faith of all parties is essential," Benjamin told the conference in February.

"In its simplest form, counterfeiting and piracy are driven by high profits and low risk - both of which are traditionally remedied with sound legal structures and enforcement.

"Policy makers must make intellectual property (IP) enforcement a priority. They must put in place strong laws and penalties to curb IP theft."

BASCAP is well-supported globally, counting amongst its members Sony, Microsoft and Vivendi.

Last month, the UAE Ministry of Economy repeated an instruction to port authorities to confiscate all illegal pay TV decoders entering the country. Emirati law explicitly states that illegally decrypting pay TV channels is forbidden.

Remarkably, many other GCC countries are yet to follow this legal assertion.

Other industries impacted by piracy are starting to take action with many achieving favourable results. In May, Microsoft worked with local authorities in Qatar and the UAE to raid resellers who had been dealing in counterfeit software.

Much of this work has been done in partnership with the Business Software Alliance (BSA). The BSA also recently led a campaign in Jordan targeting software piracy.

Jordan is a good example of how stringent legislation can have a major impact on reducing the rate of piracy. Prior to Jordan's accession to the WTO, piracy rates were estimated in the vicinity of 90 percent. This figure now stands at just 60 percent.

An underlying issue challenging progress in many industries, however, is enforcement.

This was highlighted in the Global Congress' recommendations, which state "...even if good laws are in place, they are often poorly enforced. In order to... make the enforcement of IP rights more efficient, decision-makers in the public and private sectors need to be made aware of the requirement to allocate additional human and financial resources."

A local example of this was highlighted by the Jordan Intellectual Property Association (JIPA).

"Jordan has first-rate IP legislation and has been a trailblazer in the region when it comes to IP laws," says Bassam Hijawi, chairman of JIPA, adding however, that "there seems to be no coordination between the different government departments whose job it is to enforce these laws".

The issue of enforcement was also raised by Benjamin during his speech at the Global Congress, as he pointed out that in the Czech Republic, which is a member of the EU, 70 retailers selling pirated material were discovered in one undercover operation.

Despite the level of policing increasing in some areas, the fight against DVD counterfeiting continues to prove difficult. In April, the Dubai Municipality confirmed that it had destroyed 90,000 pirated DVDs and charged 329 street vendors with selling counterfeit goods, including 2500 pirated DVDs.

The next likely battleground for IP enforcers is online. As the number of Middle East-based online content delivery services to hit the market rises and broadband penetration increses, digital piracy is set to become a major issue.

The threat of piracy in the region and the reputation which it possesses does not inspire confidence from content owners.

Middle East television coverage of the English Premier League appeared in UK venues with many undiscerning landlords opting out of the pricier commercial fees charged by Sky in that market. This may not directly have been a fault with the local industry but it does, unfairly, leave a tarnish the Middle East's reputation.

There is also the local issue of cultural sensitivity. Many decrypted set top boxes can receive European satellite TV channels, which are not included in the pay TV packages available in the Middle East.

There is only so much that broadcasters can afford to do financially in terms of investing in technology, fostering awareness campaigns and lobbying governments against the threat of piracy.

Conditional access technology can make life more difficult for hackers, but ultimately all but the most sophisticated encryption technologies can be cracked given time, motivation and significant resources, of which pirates seem to have plenty.


Crime and punishment

Lebanese cable TV piracy is one of the most infamous examples of the scale of the problem facing pay TV operators in the Middle East.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) estimates 600 to 700 pirate cable operators are currently active in the country, charging 720,000 subscribers an average of US$10 per month for hacked subscription television services.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, a recent IIPA survey of DVD retailers reported a significant degree of scepticism regarding the level of enforcement dealt out against film piracy racketeers operating in the country.

According to the report, 75 percent of respondents believed that a pirate would never be imprisoned if caught; 89 percent agreed that a counterfeit DVD retailer would never be imprisoned, while 70 percent believed that the retail establishment would never be forcibly closed, while 85 percent felt that a pirate would never be deported.

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