By Nariman Gharib
April 27, 2021
Video-on-demand (VOD) networks in Iran such as Filimo and Namava constantly break copyright laws both inside and outside Iran. But at the same time, they aggressively demand that other streaming services remove content that threatens their monopoly on stolen stock.
Copyright violations by these networks are only part of the story. There are indications that behind the scenes, they are engaged in shady schemes with Iranian institutions to bypass sanctions and, of course, rid themselves of domestic competition as well.
“Copyright”, as the term implies, denotes the legal rights granted to the creator or, in some cases, the distributor of a given creative work. Normally the copyright holder has the exclusive right to adapt, make copies of or disseminate the work.
The internet, however, has thrown a wrench into the process of enforcing copyright law due to the ease of lifting and copying other people’s intellectual property without their knowing about it. It has made rightful copyright holders all over the world wary of publishing their work on digital platforms. It has also been profitable for sprawling VOD services in Iran which operate hidden from external view, and outside of international law.
The Copyright Shambles in Iran
Iran is one of a handful of countries that has so far failed to adopt comprehensive and effective copyright laws. Instead, it has passed a series of smaller regulations that have not kept up with the changes brought about by the internet and new technologies. Among these are:
In the wider world, one of the oldest and most important international treaties for protecting intellectual property is the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
This agreement compelled its signatories to recognize copyright held by the citizens of all the other parties to the convention. It also applied to non-citizens if their work had first appeared in a signatory state, or if they were permanent residents of that country.
Copyright under the Berne Convention is automatic, meaning that no formal registration of the work is required. Even though some member countries do require registration if the disputes are taken to court, they cannot require it of works originating from other member countries.
Iran, however, never joined the Berne Convention, and does not abide by its rules.
The State Monopoly on Piracy
In September 2017, the Islamic Republic arrested the administrators of the Iranian pirate movie site TinyMoviez and shut down its servers.
Announcing the arrests of six individuals, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said: “This gang illegally operated the largest platform for downloading Hollywood films and television series dubbed into Persian. For the past three years, they generated illegal revenues by offering 18,000 dubbed foreign films and series, many of them with indecent and immoral content.”
Pirate movie website TinyMoviez was shut down by the Iranian authorities three and a half years ago – but its bigger competitors are still in business.
Notably, Iranian media also reported that the six had been arrested after complaints by other, presumably better-connected online movie sites and networks which committed exactly the same breaches of copyright.
“Investigations,” wrote the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), “indicate that TinyMoviez was shut down in accordance with Iran’s Law for the Protection of the Rights of Authors, Writers, and Artists, which prohibits the broadcast of pirated foreign films without a license from government agencies such as the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
“In effect, Iran’s licensing requirements amount to a state monopoly over products independent of, and with no consideration for, the original copyright holders.
“For example, the ministry could license Aparat, Iran’s version of YouTube, to be the sole distributor of the pirated version of the Game of Thrones TV series. Other Iranian websites would accordingly be required to obtain permission from Aparat to broadcast the series, without any regard for or consultation with the original copyright holder.”
Copyright Violations in Iran
Because Iran does not accept any legal responsibility to protect foreign creators from copyright violations, their rights are systematically and persistently violated by the country’s streaming services.
Towering over of this lawless landscape of Iranian VOD networks and streaming sites are the three giants, Namava, Aparat and Filimo, the domestic version of Netflix. Not only do these companies not welcome the appearance of foreign streaming services such as Netflix on the Iranian market, but they oppose any competition at all, be it foreign or domestic.
One instance was when certain Persian-language VOD sites reposted the series Game of Thrones, dubbed by Filimo. The conflict broke out not because of the original footage, but because these platforms did not have the “right” to use the dubbed version without the express permission of Filimo.
On the other hand, the CEO of Saba Idée, the company that owns Filimo, claimed that it had spent $1.3 million to buy the rights to stream many of the works it offers. No documentary or other evidence from Netflix or HBO to support this claim was put forward – and it cannot be true, because sanctions do not allow American companies to make deals with Iranian companies.
What’s more, the general policy of companies such as Netflix is to operate directly in various markets and not to sell the rights to works that they own. It therefore seems very unlikely that they would have struck such a deal with an Iranian company, especially one like Filimo. Finally, the long list of complaints filed by Netflix, HBO and others against Filimo and Namava appears to refute such a claim.
Copyright violations by Iranian VOD networks are often brazen in their presentation. For instance, Filimo often “presents” a documentary whose title screen clearly states it is “a Netflix original documentary”, or streams content stolen from another site without so much as bothering to remove the watermark. The original websites are often blocked outside of Iran “due to copyright infringement”.
Filimo tries to cover its tracks by presenting two different main menus – one displaying all of its bootlegged content, and one drastically pared-back – for IP addresses inside and outside Iran, as the following screenshots show.
Filimo’s main menu, viewed from an IP address belonging to Iran
Filimo’s main menu, viewed from an IP address that is either foreign or unknown
On some occasions, visitors with external IP addresses are locked out of a given page altogether. A Google search for the TV series Breaking Bad, for example, will offer up a link to Filimo’s webpage where the ripped episodes are available. Those with IP addresses belonging to Iran will be able to view that page; those outside, however, will see the “404 Error” or “page not found” message.
The page for the series Breaking Bad on Filimo’s site, when the visitor’s IP address is from inside Iran
How the same page appears when the visitor’s IP address is foreign or unknown
Naturally, paid-up members of Filimo can access all the movies and TV serials on its site from anywhere in the world – which means Filimo is violating copyright laws in countries that are members of the Berne Convention. Iranians in countries around the world stream Filimo’s content, as its ranking in various countries shows (this ranking is done by Alexa, a subsidiary of Amazon that analyzes web traffic).
Around 25 percent of Filimo’s users are based in other countries
Even critics of VOD networks inside Iran do not seem to view copyright as an important issue. A report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), for instance, only cited “censorship” and “poor dubbing” as the two “Achilles heels” of these networks, and made no reference to copyright at all.
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
Iranian video streaming companies want to use copyright laws for their own benefit while ignoring these laws when third parties are involved. In turn, they explore ways to assert their own rights on platforms such as YouTube so that nobody else can “steal” the stolen content from them.
Many Iranian VOD services are seeking to use their ill-gotten gains from distributing stolen content by investing in series that are made in Iran. But the major part of Filimo’s revenue comes from unlawfully sharing foreign content, it is not clear whether any international court would concede copyright to Filimo and Nama for an Iranian series because this “dirty money” was involved in making them.
Nevertheless, Filimo and Namava have been at pains to protect their exclusive rights to these “original” works even in markets beyond Iran. Examples include Filimo’s complaint of copyright infringement against other sites for streaming the Iranian series Aghazadeh, Namava’s similar complaint about the series Siavash, a complaint by Salam Cinema Company about the series Sham-e Irani, and yet another against Mihan Video and six other Iranian VOD sites.
The complaints show that both Filimo and Saba Idée have directly claimed the copyright for a number of different works. Moreover, they show that Filimo was registered by a company in Austria under the name of EREELE GmbH and has also launched a website called Televika, which is similar to its main website, in order to extend its legal reach beyond Iran and benefit from international copyright laws. Below is a snapshot of the Whois history report on Filimo.com:
There are also other subsidiary companies such as Dej Solutions Inc. which appear to exist in order to demand copyright protection on behalf of Iranian entities: a matter to which we will return shortly.
Curiously, even though Iran’s 80 million-strong population is the principal target market for Filimo, most of the websites the company has lodged complaints against are blocked in Iran and, due to low internet speeds in Iran, are not likely to be accessed by many Iranians via VPNs either. In other words, they pose little threat to Filimo’s interests.
At the same time, compared to the domestic market, the would-be market for Filimo’s offerings outside Iran hardly seems big enough to justify the launch and operation of a separate company in Europe.
So why bother to chase the foreign market? Iranians living outside the country also need to provide their personal information and bank account numbers in order to sign up to Filimo as members. As such, and given the known relationship between Filimo and the Iranian government and security agencies, the company’s intentions in engaging in business activities outside Iran are highly suspect.
Copyright Claims as a Money-Making Racket
The scramble for copyright protection outside Iran has also created a new, lucrative market for businesses which benefit from sanctions and Iran’s failure to join international treaties by sending copyright protection requests to various platforms on behalf of Iranian entities, generally in exchange for hefty sums. One such company is the Canadian firm Dej Solutions Inc.
The LinkedIn company profile for Dej Solutions, a Canada-based firm which appears to only service Iranian companies
These companies are registered outside Iran, but their directors are Iranians with connections within the country. In effect, they serve as Iran’s cover for business activities that would otherwise be blocked by sanctions.
Documents received by IranWire indicate that Filimo has a contract with Dej Solutions Inc. in Canada. Not only is this technically a breach of sanctions, but it is an arrangement with the ultimate purpose of allowing a pirate movie website to shamelessly make copyright claims overseas.
Companies such as Dej Solutions fairly state that they are merely providing a service and are not responsible for their clients’ other activities. What is less clear, however, is if they have any clients other than Iranian firms at all – or whether they would act in support of the original victim of these firms’ intellectual profity theft if asked.