Saudi Arabia appeals WTO piracy ruling

Saudi Arabia is appealing a World Trade Organization ruling that it has failed to protect intellectual property rights with regards the activities of pirate service beoutQ.

In a letter to the WTO’s appellate body, reported by UK newspaper The Guardian, the Saudi government said it rejects the WTO’s conclusion that football’s English Premier League was stopped from taking action against beoutQ in the Saudi courts.

It is also appealing against the ruling that Qatar-headquartered beIN Media was unable to secure legal counsel to enforce its IP rights in Saudi Arabia. BeIN holds rights to the Premier League in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region as part of a three-year deal covering the 2019-20 to 2021-22 seasons,

The WTO ruled in June that Saudi Arabia was 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.

It recommended that Saudi Arabia “bring its measures into conformity with its obligations”. The report also stated that Qatar, which brought the complaint to the WTO, had 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.

The intergovernmental body 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”.

Saudi ambassador to the WTO, Saleh Al Husseini, said the Kingdom believes there are mistakes in the ruling which “it believes constitute serious errors of law and legal interpretation that need to be corrected”.

BeoutQ has challenged the dominance in the Mena of beIN Media Group and its beIN Sports premium channels. The pirate channel was launched shortly after the start of the Saudi-led economic blockade of Qatar in June 2017. BeIN’s sports programming has been reproduced virtually in its entirety on the beoutQ platform.

The Guardian notes that the Saudi appeal is unlikely to be heard quickly as the US has blocked appointments to the WTO’s appellate body, meaning it does not have the minimum number of judges to convene. Saudi Arabia has declined to take the potentially quicker route of appealing via an arbitration process to the WTO.

BeIN reaction

BeIN has said its is perplexed by Saudi Arabia’s decision to appeal the WTO ruling.

It said: “Having spent the past six weeks telling the world how the WTO ruling was a ‘complete vindication of the kingdom’, curiously Saudi Arabia is now appealing a case they say they emphatically won.

“Rather than positively complying with international law, since June Saudi Arabia has lied to governments and rights-holders across world sport about the WTO ruling; it has said the Premier League, Fifa and Uefa sent their legal case to the wrong Saudi email address nine times; it has permanently banned the Premier League’s broadcast partner meaning the only way to watch premium sport is via piracy; and now it is appealing a WTO decision that they said they won.”

“All the while, Saudi Arabia is essentially trying to pass an honesty and an anti-piracy test under the Premier League’s rules and gain the trust of the international sports community.”

The Premier League is still mulling a proposed £300m (€331.9m/$389.9m) takeover of Newcastle United led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabian competition authorities permanently cancelled the licence of beIN Sports and issued a fine of SAR10m (€2.34m/$2.67m) for what they claim are “monopolistic practices”.

BeIN’s ability to operate in Saudi Arabia has been obstructed since 2017 amidst the diplomatic standoff between Riyadh and Doha.