Piracy thriving on zealous Saudi censors

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s worst records in protecting intellectual property rights, but retailers blame government censorship for driving music and movie piracy.

“Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that suffers greatly from piracy and counterfeiting,” Information Ministry official Abdulrahman al-Hazza said on the sidelines of the first Arab Consumer and Brand Protection Forum in Jeddah this week.

He said the ministry, which must approve music, books and video material for distribution, will clamp down harder on piracy, which is rampant in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia has the “worst enforcement regime, and for most copyright industries, the highest piracy levels in the Middle East,” the International Intellectual Property Association (IIPA) said in a report issued this year.

But traders in Jeddah say government bureaucracy plays a large part in encouraging piracy.

“By the time the permission arrives all the customers would have bought pirated versions. Why should the customer pay 80 riyals ($21.30) if he can buy it for 10 riyals and get it earlier?” said Rasmi al-Tahhan, manager of a videogame retailer that closed down its video club due to pirated competition.

Jeddah is a trading center that benefits from pilgrimage traffic to nearby Mecca and where many of the 7 million foreign nationals living in Saudi Arabia reside.

Mohammed al-Amoudy, a salesman at music and video shop owned by entrepreneur Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, said it can take up to three months before censors approve retail items.

“By the time permission comes to release the movies people have already seen them,” he said.

Censors are keen to filter everything that comes into the kingdom, a strict Islamic state where images of women are usually blurred in advertising. Scissors are taken to foreign films, pop and rock music and printed matter.

“We will not allow any movies that are against our religion to be distributed, or anything that hurts our government or royal family,” Hazza said. “We edit shots that do not comply with our society, but in a way that does not affect the story.”

Amoudy said this draconian attitude led many to prefer the pirated version over the original, even if censors get the material onto the streets in a matter of days.

Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Dominic Evans