Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Dr. Maha Al-Bakheit, heads up the Intellectual Property Unit at the Arab League, fighting against intellectual property violations in the Arab world, an increasingly damaging phenomenon in the region.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Bakheit looks at the challenges facing regional artists, writers, and musicians, and the scale of intellectual property violations and copyright theft taking place in the region. She reveals that between 50 and 60 percent of intellectual property in the Arab world is subject to violation and counterfeiting, but that the Arab League is doing everything in its power to combat this phenomenon.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the situation on the ground regarding intellectual property violations in the Arab world?
Maha Al-Bakheit: There are a lot of violations and counterfeiting taking place in the Arab world. This exceeds 50 percent in most places, and reaches as high as 60 percent in some Arab countries, whether we are talking about computer software, or works of art, literature, or music. These are industries that strengthen the Arab economy, and so a significant portion of the burden for protecting and safeguarding these industries falls on the Arab League. Intellectual property theft costs Arab countries millions of dollars, and if we were to estimate the worldwide cost of this, it would be in the billions.
Q: What’s your take on Saudi Arabia’s role in protecting intellectual property rights?
There can be no doubt that Saudi Arabia plays a central role in protecting intellectual property rights through its customs institutions. Saudi Arabia is a primary partner with the Arab League in general and the Intellectual Property Unit in particular in its fight against piracy and counterfeiting and its mission to protect intellectual property rights from violation.
Q: What books are most subject to piracy or intellectual theft?
A large number of copyrights witness significant violation, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has confirmed that music is the industry that most falls prey to such violations. It estimated that 40 billion music files are illegally exchanged or shared, and this represents a huge challenge for the music industry worldwide. Here we are talking about cultural industries such as the music industry, the publishing industry, and the film industry. This is not just to protect musicians and writers and art and culture alone, but also because these industries are very important and play an important role in supporting the national economy. This means that we must provide sufficient protection to these industries otherwise the Arab economies will face a terrible collapse.
Q: What Arab country is most vulnerable to intellectual property rights violations?
Egypt is the Arab country that witnesses the most intellectual property rights violations, particularly its music industry. Although we have done everything that we can to protect intellectual property rights in this regard, there are those who illegally share intellectual property over the internet five minutes after the product in question has been released on the market. This is a phenomenon that applies to the film industry, publishing, and almost all other cultural industries. This requires the issue of piracy to be addressed more effectively.
Q: Do you mean to say that the efforts being exerted to protect intellectual property rights in the Arab world are insufficient?
I am not saying that they are insufficient; all Arab states and their governments, including Egypt, are exerting significant effort to protect intellectual property rights. The presence of violations does not mean that these countries are not playing their role, but protecting intellectual property rights in such cases requires concerted effort from all sections of society, including local, regional and international coordination. This is one of the biggest challenges.
Q: Are there new efforts being undertaken to safeguarding intellectual property rights?
Yes, there are ongoing challenges, and there are also some new challenges. One of the reasons for this is developments and advancements in technology and communication, starting from the internet and social networking. Social networking supports creativity and innovation, and of course it is not the medium’s fault if this is being used wrongly. It is a challenge when the latest technology is being used to violate intellectual property rights. This makes it easy for them to trade and share illegal goods, whether we are talking about music files, books, etc. The more this technology
evolves and develops, the greater chance there are of violations taking place.
Q: What is required to put an end to the violation of intellectual property rights?
What is required from Arab states is to go beyond its current unilateral efforts to confront this phenomenon; it is important to integrate efforts and coordinate strategic efforts in this regard, particularly as the challenges are growing. However some Arab states do not accept the idea of unifying strategies according to their own domestic circumstances and tactics, but we are saying that when you have a task to carry out, you must band together.
Q: What achievements have the Arab League made in this regard?
The Arab League, as a regional organization, has exerted a lot of effort in this regard, particularly in the fields of fraud, counterfeiting, and intellectual property rights. The most important of these efforts can be seen in the development of regulations and legislation addressing the phenomenon of piracy, in addition to joining international conventions that deal with this, such as The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). TRIPS is an Annex 1C to the Agreement establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO) and it brought about new legislation in 1994, not to mention other international agreements.
Q: Why focus specifically on the TRIPS agreement?
This is because TRIPS involved customs authority into the issue of protecting intellectual property rights, in addition to preventing the entry of counterfeit or pirated goods from abroad. This is because when you reject counterfeit goods in this manner, preventing it from entering the country, it becomes easier to carry out subsequent investigations and procedures then if such goods were allowed entry. Therefore, there are daily campaigns to search and investigate the source of pirated intellectual products, based on reports and information. This new legislation implemented by TRIPS has been a huge victory, particularly y in terms of its effectiveness on the ground. This has granted custom agents the authority to join the fight against this phenomenon, alongside the judiciary and judicial authorities.