World Trade Organization challenge to Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect intellectual property rights in notorious beoutQ case

10 July 2019

FIFA, CAF and CONMEBOL latest victims of Saudi piracy as WTO Panel completes first substantive meeting in Geneva

Qatar’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry has welcomed the significant progress in Qatar’s dispute settlement proceedings against Saudi Arabia in the World Trade Organization (“WTO”), but warns that firm action must be taken quickly against “beoutQ” and Arabsat before the Saudi-based pirate operation and Riyadh-headquartered satellite provider destroy the global sports and entertainment market.

A Qatari delegation has completed two days of meetings in Geneva before the WTO dispute settlement Panel charged with addressing the dispute, which concerns the most widespread piracy operation that the world has ever seen.

The WTO dispute settlement proceedings relate to Saudi failures to protect intellectual property rights consistent with the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS Agreement”), in connection with the operation of the Saudi Arabia-based sophisticated broadcast pirate named beoutQ.  With the support of Saudi authorities, beoutQ systematically pirates content owned by or licensed to a Qatari-headquartered company – beIN Media Group LLP – and broadcasts it in Saudi Arabia and beyond, via Saudi-based Arabsat’s satellites.

beoutQ’s theft of global sport has continued unabated during the WTO proceedings, with FIFA, Confederation of African Football (CAF), and South America’s football ruling body CONMEBOL being the latest rights holders to be impacted. Every single match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 was stolen by beoutQ and distributed by Arabsat, leading to the international governing body of football to “explore each of its legal options as a means to address beoutQ’s unauthorised broadcasts”. Likewise, matches from the 2019 Copa América and 2019 Africa Cup of Nations have also been illegally broadcast by the pirate operation. In a statement this week, CAF said: “beoutQ is broadcast throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and is also available across the world, which is causing severe damage to the rights of CAF and all rights granted by contracts to its official broadcast partners.”

The beoutQ pirate content is widely available in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), distributed through the sale of beoutQ subscriptions and set-top decoder boxes at numerous retail outlets across Saudi Arabia. Further, such content is picked up by “pirates of pirates” and spread throughout the world via the Internet. These actions are not only harming beIN, but are having severe financial consequences for rights holders and other broadcasters all across the world.

Contrary to its obligations under the TRIPS Agreement, Saudi Arabia refuses to take any effective action against beoutQ, and prevents beIN and other impacted rights holders from bringing their own enforcement action before the Saudi courts.  Indeed, Saudi Arabia has denounced beIN’s requests to investigate and prevent the pirate’s unauthorized broadcasts, and has actually promoted public screenings of beoutQ’s unauthorized broadcasts. None of these actions is compatible with Saudi Arabia’s obligations as a member in the WTO.

During the WTO meetings, Qatar pointed out that there is simply no plausible connection between Saudi Arabia’s support for the beoutQ pirate and any security concern alleged by Saudi Arabia.  Rather than protecting security interests, Saudi Arabia attempts to abuse the WTO’s national security defense for commercial reasons.

Qatar explained to the WTO panel that, in April, the US Government published two reports that called for an end to beoutQ and placed Saudi Arabia on the “Priority Watch List” for its failure to address IP concerns. The following month, in the UK House of Commons, the prominent Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (“DCMS”) Select Committee condemned Saudi Arabia’s daily theft of intellectual property from some of the most famous UK sports and entertainment companies, with the DCMS Secretary of State (Rt Hon Jeremy Wright MP) confirming that a number of UK government departments are “pursuing this matter” and “the [UK] embassy in Riyadh is speaking to the Saudis on this subject”.

Following a second meeting, and several additional written submissions by the parties, the Panel is expected to issue its ruling in the coming months.