The ASSER International Sports Law Blog
On 15 April 2014, the Cairo Economic Court (the “Court") issued a seminal judgment declaring the broadcasting of a football match a sovereign act of State.
In Al-Jazeera v. the Minister of Culture, Minister of Information, and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Radio and Television Union, a case registered under 819/5JY, the Al-Jazeera TV Network (the “Plaintiff” or “Al-Jazeera”) the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (“ERTU” or the “Union”) et al. (collectively, the “Respondents”) seeking compensation for material and moral damages amounting to three (3) million USD, in addition to interest, for their alleged breach of the Plaintiff’s exclusive right to broadcast a World Cup-qualification match in Egypt. Al-Jazeera such exclusive right through an agreement it signed with , a sports marketing company that had the right to broadcast Confederation of African Football (“CAF”) World Cup-qualification matches.
ERTU reportedly broadcasted the much-anticipated match between Egypt and Ghana live on 15 October 2013 without obtaining Al-Jazeera’s written approval, in violation of the Plaintiff’s intellectual property rights.
Arguments of the Parties
The Plaintiff explained that its right was protected by various provisions of Law No. 82/2002 on the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights (the “IP Law”). Most notably, the Plaintiff referred to Article 139, which provides for copyright protection for both Egyptians and citizens of World Trade Organization member States, and Article 149, which grants copyright owners the right to transfer, in writing, all or some of their rights in the copyrighted content to third parties.
In addition, the Plaintiff stated that Articles 157, 158 and 159 of the IP Law gave it exclusive economic rights in the content it owned or acquired, which precludes the exploitation of broadcasting the match in any manner (including its reproduction and communication to the public) by a third party without its prior written authorization.
By broadcasting the match live on Egyptian channels without obtaining the Al-Jazeera’s prior written authorization, ERTU - the Plaintiff argued - breached the Plaintiff’s intellectual property rights that are protected under Egyptian and international law.
The Respondents emphasized the political nature of the decision to broadcast the match. They argued that Egypt’s executive branch of government was entitled to take decisions respecting the broadcasting of the match in the interest of Egypt, and its peace and security, without incurring any penalty or enduring judicial scrutiny. The Respondents added that broadcasting the match was an activity that took place entirely within Egypt pursuant to an executive decision and, as such, was an act of State that was immune to judicial scrutiny. Accordingly, broadcasting the match did not violate any laws or agreements.
Judgment on Jurisdiction
The Court began its assessment of the case by examining its jurisdiction in accordance with Article 109 of the Code of Civil and Commercial Procedures, which grants courts the power to rule on their own jurisdiction in any case before them. Then, it consulted Law No. 13 /1979 relating to the Egyptian Radio and Television Union, as amended (the “ERTU Law”), which provided for the establishment of a national authority under the name of “Egyptian Radio and Television Union”. Among other things, the ERTU Law states that the Union is (i) deemed a national authority that assumes all the functions and duties associated with audio-visual media and broadcasting services in Egypt; (ii) shall have a separate juridical personality; and (iii) shall be subordinated to the Minister of Information.
The Court established that the decision to broadcast this match was issued by ERTU, a national authority entitled to broadcast audio-visual media in Egypt for the purpose of achieving national interests and services, and ensuring collective interest in all aspects including sports.
Against this background, the Court concluded that the Union’s decision to broadcast the match fell within the Union’s mandate, which was to be exercised on Egyptian territory and without interfering with the sovereignty or law of another state. Therefore, the decision to broadcast the game was, in the opinion of the Court, an act of sovereignty that may not be the subject of litigation; and the executive authority was permitted to take all necessary measures in Egypt’s interests, while enjoying immunity against court supervision.
Finding that it lacked jurisdiction, the Court did not address the Plaintiff’s claims relating to its intellectual property rights.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
The judgment raises several questions regarding the scope of sovereign powers that can be exercised by a State. Most importantly, it provides a novel interpretation of what constitutes an act of State. Furthermore, the decision will likely push companies entering into broadcasting agreements with the Union to take various precautions, such as subjecting potential disputes to international arbitration, as opposed to the supervision of local courts.
The judgment comes as another blow to Al-Jazeera in Egypt, which saw three of its journalists sentenced by an Egyptian court to prison terms ranging from seven (7) to ten (10) years for charges that included spreading false news. One of the journalists, , has already been deported to his native Australia pursuant to a decree law that allows the deportation of foreigners to their home countries to stand trial or serve the remainder of their sentence. The other journalists have been released on bail and are currently awaiting their after the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court, quashed their sentence.
On 11 June 2014, Al-Jazeera appealed the Court’s decision to the Court of Cassation, explaining that a sovereign act of State can be easily distinguished from regular administrative activities such as the ones typically performed by the Union. According to Al-Jazeera, an act of State covers high political considerations, such as the protection of national interests, upholding the terms and principles of the Constitution, and overseeing Egypt’s relations with other States to ensure domestic and international peace and security. A football match does not meet any of these criteria.
It is likely that the Court of Cassation will overturn the Court’s judgment in light of Egypt’s IP Law and the fact that broadcasting and licensing agreements are a regular business activity. It is also important to observe how the Court of Cassation will address the lower Court’s novel interpretation of the act of State doctrine. While soccer is the most popular sport in Egypt, it is unclear how broadcasting a match can be linked to a State’s higher political interests.
Equally unclear is how Al-Jazeera will react should the Court of Cassation uphold the judgment, and whether it will consider resorting to international arbitration given that Egypt and Qatar signed a bilateral investment treaty in 1999 that protects investors’ intellectual property rights, among other things.