Piracy is not a new crime. Most people can recall at some point in their lives turning down a side street in a busy city, or walking along a beach while on holiday, and seeing a sheet laid out on the ground with a selection of pirated DVDs in flimsy, plastic sleeves. Few would choose to watch them, even if they were legal, because the quality was known to be so poor.
But today, technological advances means pirates are more sophisticated. Gone are the days when they brazenly spread their wares on the road; now, they use clever software to hide their locations, steal high-quality content and devise seemingly above-board digital portals to distribute illegally obtained product.
It takes minutes browsing the internet to find scores of websites purporting to broadcast TV programmes otherwise unavailable in that country, or selling cut-price subscriptions to mainstream TV packages.
Yet in most countries across the world, including in the GCC, it is illegal to copy, distribute or broadcast any television channel, programme or clip without the consent of the copyright owner. To watch a pay TV channel, for example, through an unauthorised card sharing or ‘set-top’ box without a proper subscription from the licensed operator, is illegal and considered an infringement of copyright.
So is using an online portal that is not registered to provide services within that particular territory or region — and anyone caught using or providing such services risks being fined or even imprisoned.
In the Gulf, TV piracy is estimated to cost the industry more than AED1.8bn ($500m) a year, according to the UAE’s Department for Economic Development (DED), and the Anti-Piracy Coalition — a group of Middle East-based broadcasters and satellite providers — is ramping up efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The coalition, whose members include pay TV network OSN, MBC Group, the Motion Picture Association of America, du, STN, Arabsat and others, says the biggest effect of piracy is not just the huge revenue loss that occurs across the content and distribution industry — for instance, broadcasters pay up to $300m to acquire the right to broadcast sports events and are unable to recover this investment if pirates air them illegally. It is also the inevitable damage to the whole of the country’s economy if a chunk of its population unwittingly or otherwise helps to finance an illicit trade.
“Governments in the region are beginning to recognise that the economic impact of piracy is not limited to the private sector but also the wider economy,” says David Butorac, chief executive of OSN and one of the Anti-Piracy Coalition’s most prominent members.
“Piracy is a black market economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the Gulf, where it is prevalent. These are organised crime groups employing tonnes of people, taking them away from mainstream jobs and affecting the creative and production industries the UAE government in particular is so keen to nurture [through the establishment of new free zones such as Dubai’s International Media Production Zone].”
Butorac adds: “New techniques are constantly being adopted by illegal operators. It is important for everyone to understand the various forms piracy takes and uphold the rights of the authorised providers who invest in such content.”
he coalition says TV decoder boxes, which are used to illegally decrypt pay TV channels, have been proliferating in the Gulf market, prompting aggressive awareness raising campaigns to try to stop the entry and sale of the devices. But, unfortunately, they continue to be available on the black market, along with third-party software, card-sharing programmes and other mechanisms to help viewers easily access pirated material.
In March, the DED and OSN launched a campaign, Do the Right Thing, warning the public against enabling TV piracy by buying unlicensed set-top boxes or illegally downloading programmes. The campaign was aired by 1,200 television broadcasts on more than 20 channels and had 225 radio plays, according to OSN.
Meanwhile, Dubai Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is clamping down on illegal operators. In recent months it has conducted around 47 raids, Butorac claims, on stores selling pirate TV devices and shut down a string of illegal Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) portals.
Earlier in August, the Dubai Courts imposed a fine of AED50,000 ($13,613) on a distributor of UKTV Abroad packages, an unlicensed IPTV service operating in the UAE, in a ruling Butorac says will help significantly in the fight against piracy. The court ordered that all digital set-top boxes be confiscated from the dealer, a British national. Other well-known IPTV services in the UAE include IP888 TV, Prime TV and Expat TV.
In Abu Dhabi in June, a shop caught selling television subscription packages illegally was fined AED200,000 and ordered to shut down for one year. The business had been selling subscriptions and set-top boxes for Indian provider Dish TV. The Indian manager was deported. In May, officers in Sharjah raided and shut down three stores selling cut-price TV packages.
The Anti-Piracy Coalition has highlighted Indian “overspill” networks as a particular problem as, though not illegal in themselves, they are not authorised to operate in the Gulf. However, the large number of expats coming from the Indian subcontinent provides a strong market for underground distributors of such services — the coalition claims at least 50 percent of Indian families living in the GCC are using pirated receivers for networks such as Dish TV, Airtel, Digital TV, Sun Direct and Tata Sky.
Elsewhere across the Gulf, stores selling illegal hardware have been shut down, including in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — the latter of which was identified as a global black spot for piracy in 2010, when the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) recommended that Saudi Arabia be removed from the US Trade Representative (USTR)’s Priority Watch List that year because of progress on combating copyright and software piracy. However, in 2013 it was returned to the list because of what the IIPA deemed “unacceptably high piracy rates, the government’s own use of pirated software and a general lack of deterrent enforcement actions”.
Saudi Arabia is working with the Anti-Piracy Coalition and the UAE government to tackle the issue and is now recognised as one of the most proactive in the Gulf.
“Saudi Customs is by far the best regime in the Gulf in protecting IP as evidenced in their proactive seizures in a transparent manner and strong cooperation with rights holders,” says Scott Butler, chairman of the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA).
It is not just English or Indian language content — Arabic language content is swarming the black market, too. According to the latest Digital TV Middle East and North Africa report by Digital TV Research, there are 34.3 million Arabic-speaking free-to-air satellite TV homes in the region and at least 10 percent of these homes also receive pirated premium satellite TV signals. This represents considerable revenue loss to the genuine players, the report notes.
Since the Egyptian authorities became members at the end of last year, the Anti-Piracy Coalition has extended its operations to cover Arabic films. It confirms the certification and ownership of each new film with the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce and reports any breaches of intellectual property rights to the satellite distributors that host suspect channels.
Hanya Atallah, copyright management manager at Arab Media Corporation, told a coalition meeting earlier this year: “Piracy of Arabic content causes tremendous damage to the whole media production sector, particularly here in Egypt.
“We now know that piracy of both non-Arabic and Arabic content is basically perpetrated by the same group of people. What started as piracy of Hollywood content then mushroomed into whole TV channels airing only pirated, Egyptian Arabic films, and is now stretching to include Arabic — mainly Egyptian, but also Syrian and Turkish — TV series. The sooner the legitimate members of the media sector and broadcasting sector in MENA cooperate to tackle this scourge, the better.”
Mazen Hayek, official spokesperson for MBC Group, insists piracy “is not increasing” — in part thanks to the efforts of the coalition and GCC governments. “We have reliable ways of tracing rogue operators and have succeeded in counterbalancing the piracy momentum by telling everyone involved that they’re not going to get away with it.”
But it’s still there, he says. “And it’s not only bad for the image of our companies and our regions; it’s an affront on the intellectual property rights of the film and TV studios, content producers, actors and actresses and directors. So it’s a matter of principle for all of us driving this and that’s why we want to send a strong message.”
The ultimate goal is to eradicate piracy, and for that countries need three crucial pillars, says Hayek. These are: clear laws governing the distribution and use of IP, robust law enforcement agencies, and a fast-track, specialised judiciary. On top of this, he says, you need an industry coalition willing to go all the way to stop piracy, and a legal framework that enables all these bodies to cooperate with one another.
“The UAE has very strict rules on IP, counterfeit merchandise, cybercrime and media and sets a valuable benchmark for the region. But other countries need to be more efficient — they need better IP laws and tougher enforcement agencies.”
The AAA’s Butler says: “There is a wide disparity between the effectiveness of various regimes in the GCC in combating counterfeit. The UAE and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are both leading in terms of overall effectiveness. The authorities are all very vigilant in combating counterfeit, and it has been our experience that the UAE judiciary also routinely issues judgements of deterrence against IP infringements. Similarly, the Saudi ministries are effective in combating copyright and trademark violations.
“More can always be done. The rights holders have an obligation to assist the authorities in complaints and training. Often the counterfeit looks very similar to the original and the authorities need assistance from the rights holders in stamping out this menace.”
But there are serious obstacles to achieving that goal. MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett says: “Piracy is unlikely to be eradicated. Given the popularity of the content, people will always try to find easy ways to access it.”
A major challenge at present is the companies that operate under an otherwise “legitimate” guise, but which provide support and services to the pirates, he says, pointing to the coalition’s recent industry monitoring on the subject, found on its website, which lists which companies are providing the most support to pirates.
“There are some surprising results. Until the so-called ‘legitimate’ companies stop doing business with pirates it is difficult both ethically and legally to make a strong case for steps against consumers.”
Constantly evolving technology is another difficulty. “Sophisticated technology makes it easier for pirates to hide their locations behind proxy settings and offer arguably better quality services, but of course it goes both ways,” Hayek says. “The same technology can be used by investigators to track them down and dismantle them.”
An arguably more complicated challenge is changing the consumer’s attitude and viewing habits. An employee of a pirate IPTV channel based outside the UAE, who asked not to be named for obvious reasons, points out that many expats in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf use virtual private networks (VPNs) to illegally watch TV produced back home. “However, people prefer to watch on a box via their TV, hence the reason these so-called ‘pirate boxes’ were being sold in the UAE as they had a remote control and you could change channel up and down, access a TV guide and generally have an easy experience than you would otherwise.”
OSN, the source claims, has suffered over the years as its own (legitimate) pay TV boxes were allegedly easy to clone. “They kept having to change cards and boxes and increase security to stamp it out, which I think they have now.”
In a reply to those comments, Butorac says: “The views by the ‘undisclosed source [in Spain]’ are baseless, ill-informed and a deliberate effort to undermine the concerted efforts of the government and the private sector pay-TV providers to fight all forms of TV piracy,”
“OSN has exclusive rights to its own channels and several third party channels as well as exclusive rights to content for the MENA region. The illegal IPTV content providers do not pay royalties to the legitimate content right-holders or the broadcasters, and as their websites show, even offer on-demand content in territories in which OSN holds exclusive rights.”
The source notes: “Part of OSN’s argument [in trying to force illegal boxes out of the marketplace] is that the network provides great entertainment for our customers so they don’t need illegal TV.
“But in my opinion, it is nothing to do with having or not having OSN; it’s about having local TV from home. OSN seems to think that if people didn’t have these boxes they would all have OSN, which is wrong as OSN is full of USA TV series and little UK stuff.”
Butorac says: “One of the arguments used against us is that the reason people go to pirates is that they are cheaper and offer a wider variety of services in the region. But I would argue that of course they can charge lower prices, they are illegal. They don’t have to pay for acquisition rights and staff.
“Just like a pirate newspaper would not have to pay journalists to write the stories as it would steal them from elsewhere, so of course it wouldn’t cost as much to run the operation and it could afford to charge less.
“When we are investing heavily in new content and technology to constantly improve our offer, we are prepared to fight people abusing the system.”
Hayek believes most viewers “pay their subscriptions and go through the right channels; it’s a minority who consume pirated content and many of those do not even know it’s a crime.”
Thus, raising awareness among the general public is a key plank of the coalition’s plan: if you are a pirate with nobody to sell to, you will go out of business. Ultimately, the coalition believes tougher action should be taken against consumers that consume content illegally.
“The fight against piracy will never end,” concludes Butorac. “It is the same with the fight to protect all types of intellectual property. But we have invested significantly in the infrastructure needed to tackle this and are confident that the vast majority of pirate operators will be eradicated.”
Hayek adds: “The message is clear: piracy is not the route and it is a crime, not some minor infringement of IP rights.
“We are moving from total darkness to total light gradually. We can’t do this in one night but so far our efforts are showing results and that is encouraging. We are sending a strong message that we will not allow this to go unpunished.”