Last week saw the announcement that a copyright dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia had settled, in a rare instance where a copyright dispute hit the global news. This led to a major change in the distribution of Premier League football broadcasts in Saudi Arabia. More significantly it removed the block on the acquisition of the UK’s Newcastle United, a Premier League club in desperate need of new owners.
The dispute began over the Premier League football broadcasts licensed to beIN Sports a global sports and entertainment company headquartered in Qatar. beIN has exclusive rights to broadcast, various prime sporting competitions in the MENA region, including in Saudi Arabia. beIN's leading content includes major European football leagues including the Premier League.
Following Saudi Arabia’s suspension of diplomatic relations with Qatar, ‘The Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information’ and ‘The General Commission for Audiovisual Media’, issued a Circular on 19 June 2017 which stated that beIN Sports was not licensed to distribute media content and did not have the rights to operate in Saudi Arabia.
In August 2017, BeoutQ a TV and streaming service began broadcasting content in Saudi Arabia, which was created by or licensed to beIN Sports which included the Premier League football. The BeoutQ service was transmitted internationally on 10 channels by the Saudi-headquartered satellite firm Arabsat.
In 2018 a legal suit was launched before the WTO requesting consultations with Saudi Arabia concerning their alleged failure to provide adequate protection of IP rights held by or applied for entities based in Qatar including beIN Sports. In 2020, the WTO panel ruled that the current diplomatic measures had prevented beIN Sports from enforcing their rights before the Saudi Courts and tribunals. This was a breach of WTO rules and subsequently, it was recommended that Saudi Arabia bring its measures into conformity with its obligations under the TRIPS Agreement on intellectual property. Essentially, they were requested to stop copyright infringements from occurring.
On 28 July 2020, Saudi Arabia notified the Dispute Settlement Body of its decision to appeal to the Appellate Body, on certain issues of the law and legal interpretations in the panel report.
Meanwhile, an international investment arbitration dispute worth over GBP 1 billion was launched in 2018 by beIN Sports claiming damages against Saudi Arabia on the basis of a series of measures implemented by Saudi Arabia following the suspension of diplomatic relations with Qatar.
The European Commission published an annual report on IP in third countries. Several European sports rights holders and broadcasters including the Premier League filed complaints relating to BeoutQ and Saudi Arabia during the consultation stage of the European Commission’s report. The European Commission issued its report in 2020 setting out priority countries in which “the EU will focus its action” regarding the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights in third countries. The report mentioned representations made by rights-holders and broadcasters with regards to copyright issues related to BeoutQ’s unauthorized broadcasted content and the inadequate measures taken by the relevant Saudi Arabian authorities against BeoutQ’s activities.
The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has Saudi Arabia on its “Priority Watch List” related to the BeoutQ’s activities. In this report, the United States encouraged Saudi Arabia to increase IP enforcement actions and intellectual property awareness campaigns targeted at online copyright infringement.
beIN Sports filed a complaint in France against Arabsat for broadcasting without authorization global sports events that are created by or licensed to beIN Sports, including BeoutQ unauthorized broadcasted content. In June 13, the court found that:
In August 2019, BeoutQ suddenly ceased operating. It was unclear why, although upgrade issues were mentioned.
Separately the Saudi Arabian State Investment Fund’s PCP Capital Partners formed a consortium to make a bid to acquire Premier League club Newcastle United. The club had long struggled with a deeply unpopular owner Mike Ashley and declining performance. This bid was initially rejected due to many factors, some of which were related to the BeoutQ dispute. Many fans were disappointed.
In December 2020 beIN Sports secured a new deal worth $500 million for the MENA region until 2025. Of the 20 football clubs, only Newcastle voted against the deal.
A thawing of Saudi Arabia-Qatar relations began in 2021. Irregular beIN Sports broadcasts started up in Saudi Arabia earlier this year.
In October 2021 beIN Sports announced that Saudi would allow the beIN Sports service to start broadcasting again in Saudi. They said that Saudi Arabia had committed to removing all pirate websites when notified by beIN Sports.
This led to the Premier League officially approving the Saudi purchase of Newcastle United in early October 2021 by a consortium of PCP Capital Partners, Reuben Brothers and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. There have been a number of political controversies around the deal related to political issues concerning Saudi Arabia as an investor, rather than the copyright issue. Newcastle fans are largely united in their enthusiasm for the deal, despite many controversies around it. Getting rid of their last owner trumped the other fan concerns. Copyright might have not been the only block, and perhaps not for most people the highest-profile issue at all. But it was certainly the main legal block. So when that fell away the acquisition of Newcastle could proceed.