African rights holders and broadcasters set to launch Africa Rights Watch to combat piracy by broadcasters themselves

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The African television industry’s dirty little secret is that there are television companies who simply broadcast material that they have recorded off air and which they do not have the rights to. To face up to this challenge of corporate piracy, a number of key African broadcasters came together and have agreed to set up Africa Rights Watch as a way of trying to police these kinds piracy. Russell Southwood spoke to Cherise Barsell of DISCOP about how idea to launch the organisation came about and what it is setting out to achieve.

*    There are over 40 TV channels in Kinshasa and on any given night some these channels will be broadcasting material pirated from other stations.

*    In a West African country, a Pay TV newcomer has pirated the signal from one of the more successful Pay TV companies and is selling this material as part of its own bouquet. This kind of broadcast piracy is particularly popular with premium sports content.

*    In another country, a broadcast station has received samples of material it might want to buy and is simply broadcasting them without having signed an agreement or paid a cent for them.

*    A variation on the above example is that a TV station will sign a contract and receive material but fail to pay for the material.

These are the kinds of behaviour that Africa Rights Watch will be set up to try and stop them happening. The idea for the new body came out of a lively round table discussion at DISCOP Africa 3 in Dakar with leading African television players including: CanalSat Horizons, L’Association Privee des Producteurs et Televisions D’Afrique (APPTA), leading distributor in Africa Cote Ouest, South Africa Pay TV platform MNET and Le Reseau de L’Audiovisuel Public D’Afrique Francophone (RAPAF).

After that meeting, the main protagonists issued what may subsequently become known as the Dakar Declaration:

“We, representatives of the African Audiovisual industry, gathered in Dakar on the 25th of February 2010 during DISCOP Africa 3 to discuss, ‘Regulation: A Vital Step in the Developing Audiovisual Industry, and following the meeting declare a united interest in:
* Promoting an audiovisual economy respectful of creative and legal rights.
* Increasing public authorities’ awareness of the benefits of reinforcing these rights.
* Creating an Association dedicated to taking the necessary measures to fight against audiovisual piracy in Africa.

In addition, agreement has been reached that the association, which will be called Africa Rights Watch, will be launched, in the presence of all the main players, during DISCOP Africa 5, which will take place in Accra Ghana, 9 – 11 February 2011”.

It will have two tiers of membership: firstly, full members, the rights holders in the industry; and secondly, associate members which will include broadcasters buying rights; advertisers who fund content; and regulatory authorities, who it hopes to persuade to take more decisive action against this kind of piracy.

The association’s main focus will be on providing three distinct services for members:

•    Legal Resources, including the laws in each country, as well as the contact details for the regulatory authority and those who can provide legal assistance.
•    Information on the effects of piracy
•    Complaint Tools, including template complaint letters to send suspected rights violators and regulatory authorities, in both French and English.

For according to Cherise Barsell, DISCOP’s Africa Executive Manager (and one of the movers behind the setting up of the organisation):”If complaints are issued against a particular broadcaster and posted on the association’s website, it will undermine the professional standing of the offender. It says that if you don’t play by the rules, it won’t remain a secret. For example, if a broadcaster has a history of pirate transmissions, you won’t send that broadcaster content in advance.”

Mike Dearham, Head of Sales and Acquisitions of the African Film Library at M-NET, underlined the size of the challenge facing the planned organization, observing, “it is not enough merely to frame rules, it is also necessary to construct a mechanism capable of ensuring that the rules are enforced”

But Barsell believes that the force of publicity will begin to change attitudes to this issue. Because sadly this kind of business practice is at best viewed with a degree of ambivalence, almost as way of getting one over on your competitors, by those who carry it out: “It is important that broadcasters understand that everyone is aware of the situation, especially in the country itself.” Regulators need to be made aware of these issues and be prepared to act on them when evidence is forthcoming.

But what of the difficulties that come with complicated disputes that always seem to contain and element of ‘we said, they said’?:” It will be clear that we are not taking sides. However, the complaint forms that go out with the template letter are very detailed and you will need to give times and examples of content stolen. We will be saying the alleged problem, particularly where payment has not been made.”

Commenting on the initiative, Bernard Azria, founder and Director General of Cote Ouest, Africa’s largest independent distributors noted, it is vital that the problem of piracy be eliminated, or at least significantly reduced in Sub-Saharan Africa. If the theft of intellectual property is allowed to continue at its present levels it will be a very severe blow to the possibility of building a flourishing audiovisual business with a secure long-terms future in the region”.