x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Satellite television piracy 'difficult to counter'

Industry watchdog admits that pirated satellite television has become so commonplace that it will be "difficult to counter".

The growth in pirated satellite television has been fuelled by sporting events such as the English Premier League.
The growth in pirated satellite television has been fuelled by sporting events such as the English Premier League.

An industry watchdog has admitted that pirated satellite television, which captures not only movies and sporting events but also pornography, has become so commonplace that it will be "difficult to counter". The statement by the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA) comes as one of the region's largest pay-TV providers speculated that the number of illegal television-signal decoders in the Middle East could be as high as one million, and said it was able to block only several thousand of them each year.

The UAE is widely regarded as a regional model for combating copyright infringement. However, the scale, sophistication and ingenuity of entertainment piracy in the Middle East, which ranges from illegally captured satellite television to copied DVDs, is making the practice virtually impossible to stamp out. Industry groups claim that piracy could jeopardise investment in new technologies and hinder the availability of popular but expensively acquired programming and sporting events.

"The investment we have seen by the pirates not only to break encryption codes for premium channels but also to establish a vast distribution network is considerable," said Scott Butler, the chief executive of the AAA, which represents the interests of Hollywood film studios, subscription TV channels and other media companies. "The volume of piracy and the financial clout they have to keep innovating is difficult to counter."

Mr Butler said the industry, "in alliance with the police and companies", had so far managed to keep up with the pirates' technical innovations and was able to counter them on the rare occasions they were able to track them down. The pirated boxes look the same as legal equipment but contain software that allows them to decode broadcasts without a subscription. He also praised the UAE for leading the way in the region with regards to fighting copyright infringement. "It is telling that companies such as Showtime and Orbit have invested in the UAE. It shows they are confident that the copyright law protects them. That certainly isn't the case elsewhere in the Gulf. Not a single prison sentence has been applied for software piracy in Saudi Arabia," he said. "We have the full support of the [UAE] police and the judiciary to give harsh punishments to those caught. For example, in one recent raid an individual who had copied 850 DVDs was given an eight- month jail sentence. However, the profits that can be made means that piracy will always be with us." Wisam Edghaim, the operations director for Showtime Arabia, said the use of illegal decoders was widespread, and that most people failed to see the threat they caused to legitimate companies. "We estimate that there are a million illegal decoders streaming copyrighted programmes in the Middle East. We discover and block around 6,000 a year but are only scratching the surface of the problem. "A combination of lost profits and capital diverted to combat piracy is limiting our ability to invest in new technology and bring the latest programmes to the region. "The end users are the ones that suffer." There was, he said, a moral dimension to the issue: "The fight against piracy is not just to protect our profits, it has a societal and moral dimension too. "Illegal decoders enable customers to access damaging images such as explicit pornography. And because it is unregulated parents do not have the choice of setting controls or blocking particular content." The widespread use of illegal satellite TV decoders began several years ago, spurred by the introduction of high-value copyrighted programmes, such as English Premier League football and popular US series such as Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty and The Simpsons. The AAA said that although leading media companies had invested heavily in the antipiracy effort and in technologies to track illegal decoders, it believed the only real solution was greater punishments for offenders. Said Mr Butler: "Even if we trace the pirates it is difficult and time-consuming to gather the evidence for a conviction. In most cases the fine they receive upon conviction only skims the top off the profits they make." tbrooks@thenational.ae