Interviews

Nab the thieves

MBC and OSN have managed to garner support to fight the illegitimate distribution of content on TV as well as online platforms. Vibhuti Arora finds out how legitimate players are waging a war against rogue channels

From left: Sam Barnett, Carlie Goode, Nora Bakhorji and Wadi Said.

Theft of content is costing the MENA broadcast industry hundreds of millions of dollars. It is a growing concern in the MENA region and with illegitimate players devising ingenious ways to steal content, the battle for legitimate players is getting harder every day.

Illegitimate satellite channels and websites that show film and TV content without buying broadcast of rights are on the rise, and this is hurting legitimate players who invest heavily in acquiring content. The region’s broadcasters are not taking it lying down and are fighting back to claim what’s rightfully theirs. Their drive to establish legitimate distribution of content has translated into channeling huge amounts of money into fighting this menace.

The Middle East broadcast market is unique in many ways, which means it has its unique set of problems too. Experts say that despite having laws in place to protect intellectual property rights, the enforcement of the same is difficult. Thanks to a long history of free-to-air channels in the region, it is hard to mobilise support from consumers, who assume entertainment should be free. In many cases, consumers are not even cognisant that they are offered stolen content.

Regional broadcasters are grappling with piracy issues that exploit the FTA and satellite markets, a recent phenomenon, which is perhaps unique to the region.

“This is not downloading or peer sharing but stealing movies and playing them out on satellites. Satellite piracy covers everyone. It is a criminal activity – stealing in blatant disregard to international laws,” says Sam Barnett, CEO of MBC Group, which has a large team in place to counter the pirates.

The illegitimate channels upped their game and assumed that they could get away with it, says Barnett.

“Rather than stealing an occasional film they launched whole channels. What these channels do is replicate a movie 350 million times and give it to everyone for free. It took us some time to actually figure out how we could counter it,” he adds.

With a strong bouquet of movie channels, MBC Group is, perhaps, one of the most hurt by this type of piracy in the region.

Almost two years ago, MBC Group appointed an anti-piracy team with full-time staff to monitor the ‘rogue’ channels. Over the past several months, the team has successfully brought down at least five to six pirate channels.

The anti-piracy team at MBC monitors the movies playing on the various FTA channels constantly and compares them against their database. It also check for the movies that feature on the broadcaster’s database for the next five years, in other words, if they are future exclusive. Once the defaulting channels are identified, the broadcaster approaches studios to get the requisite documentation in order to prove it has the rights for those movies. That’s when the satellite companies are approached and informed about the content playing illegally using their bandwidth. The broadcaster started looking at the movies first because the rights are relatively easy to define.

“We do that for each movie. We were forced to undertake this exercise, which is expensive but critical, owing to the losses involved,” explains Barnett.

Every time a movie is stolen, the team reports the breach to the rights owner.

Carlie Goode, Acquisitions Manager at MBC and one of the key members of the anti-piracy team says that despite these relentless efforts by the broadcasters, the pirates are not giving in.

“The number of pirate channels is still on the rise. Many a time, before we even license the content, it is shown on the pirated platforms, which breaches our first-run rights and exclusivity. And this doesn’t impact only the FTA window but also pay-TV,” she says.

Content theft is proving to be detrimental to the perception of these channels which have been associated with showcasing exclusive content before anybody else.

“The pirates even damage the theatrical broadcast of the movies by distributing earlier versions. When we have a movie premiere, we see some of our viewers reporting on social networks that they have already seen the movie before,” she laments.

Some of the satellite players and IP operators have extended full support to the efforts of the broadcasters by terminating the contracts of illegal players or not renewing them.

In some ways the solution is very simple: “Certain satellite operators can stop selling bandwidth to thieves”.

Sam Barnett, CEO, MBC.

Legal framework

There must be a legal framework to nab the perpetrators, one would think. But it appears that the perpetrators have exploited regulatory weaknesses in certain countries.

That’s not all, as some illegitimate channels are even receiving advertising support. Satellite providers and the legitimate part of the industry continue to sell bandwidth to unscrupulous operators, which needs to be addressed.

“We have the broadcast rights but we do not own the content. So we depend on the studios to pursue the legal battle,” adds Barnett.

“Egypt, for instance, has a strong tradition of intellectual property as it has been the home of the Middle East film industry. It does have regulatory laws in place but executing those laws can take a long time. Will the American studios come to post-revolution Egypt and launch legal cases against a murky mafia? They appear reluctant to do so and these channels are exploiting that reluctance,” explains Barnett.

MBC is also looking at a solution to deploy a software that identifies the movies and compares it to movies in their database using audio signals.

“Conceptually, it sounds clever and an easier way to identify the problem but that doesn’t solve the issue. It enables us to go more quickly to the satellite operators and ask them to stop selling bandwidth to the pirates. That doesn’t mean they will always agree,” adds Barnett.

Anti-piracy consortium

“Across many sectors now there is a legal obligation to know your client. If this could apply to the satellite industry as well, it would go a long way to nip the problem in the bud,” says Barnett.

It looks like the region’s broadcasters are determined to keep their content and are proactively lobbying for the cause. Leading the way are MBC and OSN who are bringing on board some satellite operators to support the cause.

Regional broadcasters, satellite operators and enforcement agencies are joining hands to form a consortium to lobby against unscrupulous players in the industry. The consortium intends to involve as many legal players as possible including the local broadcasters, satellite players, and studio owners. Others will emerge as the consortium and the code of conduct takes shape and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has been invited too. Legitimate players in the industry are very clear of what their rights are and where the infringement is taking place.

 

The team

• Sam Barnett: MBC Group CEO

• Carlie Goode: Acquisitions Manager- MBC Group

• Nora Bakhorji: Anti-Piracy Executive

• Wadi Said: Anti-Piracy Coordinator

• Lina Matta: Channel Manager (MBC2, MBC MAX, MBC4)

• Syed Ali: Acquisitions Executive

• Mjd Salkhadi: Channel Coordinator (is responsible for monitoring and conducting daily reports for the piracy project)

• Mohammad Ghazi: Channel Coordinator for MBC2 (one of the Anti-Piracy monitoring team members; monitors and sends monitoring reports on a daily basis)

• Eva Badr: Senior Programming Executive

Istikana

Samer Abdin, Founder and CEO of Istikana

It is quite common for people to record directly from TV and place the copies online either through illegal sites, or on YouTube. Yet another way is when content owners share their content by placing it online (mainly YouTube), without regard to monetisation, thinking that views equate money, somehow.

Monitoring online is a tough job. Avenues such as YouTube make it much easier for content owners to monitor what is going on. But more broadly, we know the pirate sites and keep an eye on them, but new ones do pop up on a regular basis.

Ultimately, it boils down to the consumer being offered a great deal that is more convenient than pirated options. However, an important element is also through revenue restriction, as well as legislation (though this one is much harder). Revenue restriction could happen if the main providers of advertising inventory, such as Google – would be much stricter about video sites and require proof that this content is legally allowed to be monetised through them.

Combating online piracy needs a two-pronged approach. Firstly there should be a provision of legal services – as if there is no other option, consumers will pirate by default. Istikana has been at the forefront of providing video services to the region, and so we are helping in that. The other element, is to have advertising networks help the market by not funding illegal sites, and thirdly government legislation would also help. Lastly establishing an IP law in MENA, which seems far-fetched because MENA is not one country and so to have a unified front is very hard. Such laws are almost non-existent in the region and the governments and lawmakers need to work on that front. The more mature markets like the US and Europe have such laws in place to nab illegal operators who operate online.

 

OSN fights back

David Butorac, CEO, OSN

Protection of intellectual rights is the most under-addressed issue today, because peopletend to think that it’s a victimless crime,according to David Butorac, CEO of OSN. Thetruth, is far from it. Theft of content has farreaching effects that potentially damage thedynamics of the broadcast industry.  The broadcasters stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue, which are siphoned off to illegal players instead of being channeled into driving local production.  “The Gulf countries are very eager to develop the local industry. Piracy is hurting economies in the long run by hampering the development of local production with revenue being siphoned off to illegitimate platforms,” says Butorac. While encroachment on FTA territory is rampant in the region, it is pay-TV that has faced the brunt of it — losing hundreds of millions of dollars to illegitimate platforms which redistribute premium content without permission. These illegitimate platforms are preying on FTA for ad shares and eating into the subscription of pay-TV. “We pay millions of dollars to buy premium content and it impacts us negatively, when it is transmitted by players that have no rights to do so. Channels such as Majestic and Top Movies are infringing on movie rights by transmitting films they do not have rights to, over satellite or IP to millions, in complete breach of law,” comments Butorac. What’s more, these channels are pulling in advertising money, thereby damaging the dynamics of the industry. More often than not, the users who are at the end of the chain are oblivious to the detrimental effects of piracy. The idea of receiving free content is widely acceptable in the region.Dish TV is yet another form of piracy, costing the local pay-TV industry millions of dollars.

“When we buy rights to transmit in a region like the MENA region we do that only here and don’t go beyond the MENA region. Similarly, Indian broadcasters need to be mindful of that. Dish TV has the rights to transmit in India and it should be limited to that,” explains Butorac.

“We are trying to mobilise support from various quarters including broadcasters, lawmakers, satellite and IP operators to fight unscrupulous elements,” he adds.

Piracy is causing a major impediment to developing a thriving production base in the region by eating into legitimate broadcasters’ legitimate share of the market.

“Clamping down on piracy will expand our investment in local content creating,” he adds.

Intellectual crimes are tried in civil courts in Malaysia, other regions need to adopt that too, according to Butorac.

“We are looking at what the more mature markets like the US and UK are doing and trying to implement that here. Satellite and IP players are supporting the cause but they can do much more,” he adds.