Saudis may put video pirate in brig

A DVD pirate may become the first jailed in Saudi Arabia for the crime, in a clampdown by the information ministry that signals the start of a new era in GCC copyright protection.

A worker sorts out a portion of about 35,000 confiscated pirated film DVDs as officials prepare to destroy them in the southern Indian city of Chennai March 23, 2007. REUTERS/Babu (INDIA)

A DVD pirate may become the first jailed in Saudi Arabia for the crime, in a clampdown by the information ministry that signals the start of a new era in GCC copyright protection. Scott Butler, the chief executive of the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA), said a jail sentence would be the culmination of 14 years of work his organisation had put into obtaining tougher penalties for media pirates in the Gulf's largest market.

The decision is under review at Saudi Arabia's board of grievances, which is responsible for handing down prison sentences. "We've been working for 14 years trying to get an imprisonment judgment in Saudi, because it's a country of 26 million people with 99 per cent piracy when it comes to movies," Mr Butler said. "Until you have teeth and a deterrent sentence, pirates will continue to operate with impunity."

Saudi Arabia has long had one of the biggest piracy problems in the Arab world. Last month, Yousef Mugharbil, the president of Rotana Digital Media Group, said the company lost a dollar to pirates for every dollar it made, and has had to radically lower its prices in its home market of Saudi Arabia to compete with them. On Thursday, in a further sign that the situation may be changing, the office of the US trade representative removed the kingdom from its 301 watchlist, which is designed to identify nations that might be a threat to intellectual property.

Mr Butler, speaking on the sidelines of the opening day of the International Publishing Association Copyright Symposium in Abu Dhabi, said Abdulrahman al Hazza, Saudi Arabia's new undersecretary of the ministry of culture and information, had greatly improved the transparency of the ministry's copyright efforts, allowing organisations such as the AAA to play a more useful role. The AAA was originally founded in the region to represent the interest of the Motion Picture Association, the international counterpart of the Motion Picture Association of America, which advocates for the rights of film companies Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Walt Disney and Warner Bros.

Today, it works with the local distribution partners of these companies, such as Rotana and Viva Entertainment, as well as Microsoft and book and music publishers. While its original focus was on the UAE, its focus has moved to Saudi Arabia because of the market's size and the scope of its piracy problems, Mr Butler said. "Saudi is our main focus, mainly because the UAE is OK," he said. "Raids are happening, we are getting piracy sites blocked and pirates are being sent to prison [in the Emirates], almost always."

The UAE's first piracy jailing took place a decade ago. Since then, jail for copying and distributing DVDs, as well as illegally copying and selling books, has become the rule, rather than the exception, Mr Butler said. Meanwhile, the Middle East's largest market, Egypt, is still fighting an uphill battle with piracy. Bassem Awad, the chief judge in the court of first instance in the Egyptian ministry of justice, said book piracy cost the Egyptian publishing industry US$32 million (Dh117.5m) in 2008.

"The future of publishing is very challenging in Egypt," Mr Awad said at the conference. Solving this problem is vital to building a knowledge-based economy across the region, several speakers said. "In the US, 11 per cent of our GDP is based on copyright," Mr Butler said. "In the Middle East it's not even close, but it could be. The reason why it's not is because of high piracy rates."