What Is Behind FG’s Affection For Intellectual Property Pirates? By Edamisan Job

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    What Is Behind FG’s Affection For Intellectual Property Pirates? By Edamisan Job
    What Is Behind FG’s Affection For Intellectual Property Pirates? By Edamisan Job

    On the evidence of social media reactions to the news of the launch of SLTV, a pay television platform operated by Metrodigital Limited, it is not unreasonable to say that some Nigerians are excited. That is hardly surprising because Nigerians have always believed that the more pay TV platforms are available, the lower the tariffs will be.

    The veracity of that belief, which plainly ignores other domestic economic dynamics, remains untested. They also must be delighted that SLTV, from the off, got the backing of the Federal Government, with Chief George Akume, the Secretary to Federal Government, the one who unveiled SLTV. At the launch, Akume, represented by Professor Babatunde Bernard, his Senior Special Assistant (Technical), gushed at SLTV’s prospects, as government officials tend to do at launches.

    “In recent times, Nigerians have been yearning for alternatives to Satellite Pay TV that can serve as an alternative to the existing ones. SLTV has responded very loudly and clearly, and from the information made available to me, they are willing to give their fellow compatriots real value for their money in terms of service quality and affordability.

    The Federal Government wishes to assure the management of SLTV of her full backing as they continue to do legitimate business in Nigeria’s broadcast industry,” Akume said.

    That was the invitation SLTV needed to chest-thump, subtly malign competition and issue head-in-the-clouds projections in a sector notorious for its high mortality rate. Dr. Ifeanyi Nwafor, Metrodigital’s Managing Director, claimed that the growth of the domestic Pay TV sector has been stymied by anti-competitive policies and laws and legal frameworks that encouraged monopoly. His company, he said, was inspired to invest in the sector because the Federal Government has begun to take steps to make the operating space competitive. Nwafor continued with optimistic pronouncements characteristic of a new political party in power. Subscribers, he said, can pay from N2,500 for access to its package of 55 channels.

    “The Pay TV industry in Nigeria has not actually witnessed robust and accelerated growth since its inception, as has been witnessed in other places. The reason is the policies and legal frameworks that shape the practice and attitude of the industry participants. This allowed the dominant players to introduce monopolistic practices that over the years prevented innovation and growth and led to poor quality of service delivery,” he stated.

    In more than one way, Metrodigital reminds me of TSTV, the on-off-on-and-off again operator, launched with blinding extravagance on 1 October 2017. TSTV, whose launch was on the country’s Independence Day, promoted itself as freeing Nigerians from shackles of exploitation, promised a la carte viewing of premium content, including much coveted live sports, at rock-bottom tariffs. It promised to create 5,000 direct jobs.

    Nigerians cheered. Lustily. The Federal Government, through Alhaji Lai Mohammed, then Minister of Information, announced a three-year tax relief. Media reports quoted Mohammed as saying: “What Dr. Echefu (TSTV founder) has done is to democratize the media and entertainment industry and make it possible for all to have access to the best entertainment in the world. Just like a Nigerian also made history by crashing the cost of telephony in Nigeria, I am glad that another Nigerian is now coming forward also to crash the price of Pay TV.

    TSTV’s story of shambolic rollout does not require much retelling beyond the fact that the operator’s unravelling had much to do with a bouquet of intellectual property theft scandals it was enmeshed in within weeks. TSTV had advertised a number of popular channels on its platform, claiming to have redistribution agreements with their owners.

    Those owners, almost on rotation, denied such agreements and issued desist orders immediately. Among these were Turner Broadcasting System, which runs CNN International; beIN, the Qatari sports broadcaster; Viacom International Media Networks Africa, which runs MTV Base and Nickelodeon; as well as FOX Networks Group Africa, which is responsible for the FOX Entertainment channel, National Geographic, Nat GEO WILD and the FOX Sports. I imagine that the Federal Government must have been embarrassed at how things turned out.

    There is a chance a bigger embarrassment is in the offing, given Metrodigital’s intellectual property records, which should bother a government seeking investments in the content sector. In May, 2021, the Port Harcourt Division of the Federal High Court ruled that Metrodigital was pirating the content of another broadcaster, MultiChoice, that of La Liga and UEFA via a Belorussian satellite company and redistributing such to its Nigerian subscribers at between N3,500 and N5,000 monthly.

    The suit was in response to a raid on its offices and those of other illegal broadcasters by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which seized equipment used for the illegal activity. Joined as co-respondents were the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the Minister of Information. Before opting for litigation, Metrodigital wrote to MultiChoice, seeking authorization to redistribute certain channels and programmes on the latter’s platform. The request was turned down, with MultiChoice stating it does not own the rights to the channels, as it is a sub-licensee. This, it further stated, would violate the redistribution agreements with the owners. During the pendency of the case, Metrodigital continued redistributing the content illegally, necessitating a raid on its offices.

    Metrodigital’s case was built on the discredited 6th National Broadcasting Code, issued by the NBC in 2020 but was nullified by a court in May 2022. The said code outlawed content exclusivity and empowered the regulator to, among other things, order broadcasters to sub-license content to rivals and determine the prices of what was to be sub-licensed.

    Metrodigital’s record of intellectual property larceny dates back to 2007, when the it filed a suit against the National Copyright Commission (NCC), which raided its office at the instance of the defunct HiTv, founded by Toyin Subair, President Bola Tinubu’s Special Assistant on Special Duties and Domestic Affairs. HiTv, which had exclusive broadcast rights to the English Premier League (EPL) at the time, complained to the NCC that signal to the matches, illegally down-linked via Showtime smartcards bought in the Middle East, were being transmitted by Metrodigital to subscribers in Onitsha, Asaba and Port Harcourt.

    Given the priority accorded intellectual property globally, It is curious that an operator with a rich rap sheet is what the government has rolled out the red carpet for. Four years ago, in a case that reverberated around the world, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) indicted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for facilitating the transmission of pirated content from Qatari-sports network beIN, which has exclusive rights in the Middle East region over major football events such as the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA World Cup.

    The WTO report stated that Saudi Arabia enabled the broadcast of exclusive beIN content through an unauthorised channel called beoutQ. The report contained evidence of Saudi backing, including tweets promoting beoutQ before its inception, including one by Saud al-Qahtani, a top aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

    “All of the tweets above foreshadow that a substitute for beIN’s operations would enter the Saudi market, and some of the tweets support the establishment of a pirate channel, beoutQ, to circumvent beIN’s exclusive licences from third-party right holders. Saudi Arabia did not contest the content of these tweets,” the WTO panel said.

    The WTO verdict was a major reason the purchase of Premier League club, Newcastle United, by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was protracted. Can Nigeria afford to be reputationally wounded from supporting intellectual property pirates?

    Job, an intellectual property rights activist, writes from Lagos.