By Emma Farge and Philip Blenkinsop
GENEVA/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A World Trade Organization (WTO) panel told Saudi Arabia on Tuesday it had breached global rules on intellectual property rights by failing to prosecute a pirate broadcaster of sports and movies in a dispute with Gulf neighbour Qatar.
Doha filed its complaint in 2018, saying Saudi Arabia was blocking Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom and refusing to take effective action against alleged piracy of beIN's content by beoutQ, a commercial-scale pirating operation.
The three-person WTO panel ruled that Saudi Arabia's failure to act against beoutQ was a breach of WTO rules and recommended that Riyadh bring its measures into conformity with its obligations under the TRIPS Agreement on intellectual property.
Under the agreement, countries need to allow for criminal procedures and penalties to be applied in cases of commercial-scale copyright piracy.
The panel did support Saudi Arabia's view that it could block Qatar's broadcaster from obtaining legal counsel in Saudi Arabia on grounds of national security. Riyadh welcomed that finding.
However, the panel also said national security could not excuse Saudi Arabia from its failure to prosecute beoutQ.
David Sugden, senior legal counsel and director of corporate affairs at beIN Media Group, accused Saudi Arabia of continuing "to promote the theft of sports rights" and said the only way Saudi fans could watch such sport was "via illegal means."
In a statement, Qatar's commerce ministry described the ruling as a "resounding victory" and said that Saudi Arabia needed to respect the rights of high profile sports and entertainment.
Saudi Arabia rejected that assertion.
"Saudi Arabia has a strong record of protecting intellectual property and is committed to applying its national law and procedures in full conformity with WTO rules," Saudi Arabia's mission to the WTO said in a statement.
Qatari company beIN holds regional broadcasting rights for much of the world’s most expensive and high profile sporting events as well as entertainment.
It is blocked in Saudi Arabia under a boycott imposed when Riyadh and its allies severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, over Doha’s alleged support of terrorism, which Qatar denies.
IMPLICATION FOR PREMIER LEAGUE?
The ruling comes as Saudi Arabia is in talks over a reported 300 million pound ($377 million) bid to buy English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United.
The Premier League, which is reviewing the bid, last year appointed legal counsel to take action against beoutQ over what it said at the time was "highly organised and sophisticated illegal broadcast piracy". It declined to comment on the WTO ruling.
The WTO's 125-page report said there was "prima facie" evidence that beoutQ is "operated by individuals or entities under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia."
BeoutQ is widely available in Saudi Arabia but Riyadh has repeatedly said it is not based there. Reuters could not determine who owns or operates the channel. Reuters has not been able to contact beoutQ for comment.
European soccer's governing body UEFA welcomed the report.
"What is clear is that beoutQ’s broadcasts constitute piracy of UEFA’s matches and as such, are illegal," it said in a statement.
The WTO ruling stated that the Geneva body considered evidence from UEFA, global soccer body FIFA, Spain's La Liga and Britain's Premier League in reaching its conclusions.
(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Additional reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov in London; Ghaida Ghantous and Saeed Azhar in Dubai; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Nick Tattersall)