Lawyers win in football TV rights battle

Karen MurphyPA

The ruling on the right to show live football was widely hailed as a victory for pub landlady Karen Murphy (left) yesterday, but as the full implications of the ruling hits home it appears the only outright winners at the moment are the lawyers. Because there's plenty of interpretation to do.
Murphy went to the European Court of Justice with an appeal against an £8,000 fine and costs she incurred for showing live football via a Greek decoding card in the pub she runs. Showing the games this way is cheaper than paying the £7,000-12,000 annual fee Sky demands.

The Premier League and Sky said this breached copyright, but the ECJ ruled that prohibiting the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards was "contrary to the freedom to provide services. That's why the ruling was initially interpreted as a victory for the pub landlady. But, as ever with legal rulings, the reality is considerably more complicated.

Premier League

The question of intellectual property rights is at the heart of the case, and it's this that is not clear cut. The ECJ ruled that live matches were not protected by copyright, but 'additionals' such as the Premier League music, sets of graphics and highlights packages, were.

So pubs need to find a way of showing the live action without the extras, which will be tricky, especially if the broadcasters add packages to the screen during live transmission – for example by playing music when a goal is scored. As a consumer, Murphy can watch games through her foreign decoder – but she can't show the whole package to her customers.

Sports lawyer Andrew Nixon agrees that while publicans can now show Premier League football at cheaper prices, "the albatross in the corner is the 'split' ruling on the copyright, so to avoid breaching copyright law, publicans will need to find a way to show matches without the additional extras."

Decoder box

And while some media hailed the ruling as a victory for consumers, the reality is that not much will change. To get the foreign feed, an individual would need to pay up to £1,500 for the decoder box and card, plus pay about £500 for a satellite dish. And that would be for transmission in a foreign language.

The main impact of the ruling will come on the way the Premier League sells its rights. It will no longer be able to do so on an exclusive country-by-country basis – and film and TV programme makers who sell material on a territorial basis will also be affected.

Value of rights

Nixon says: "In principle, the concept of cheaper access to Premier League football could devalue the rights, and therefore devalue the broadcasting deal. That could in turn have a knock on effect on the money generated by TV which filters its way down to football clubs and below.

"However, in real terms the Premier League will explore other ways to exploit their rights and what they come up with is unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the money generated from TV. For example, as above, a pan-European Premier League channel could be an option."

The ECJ judgment is now back with the UK High Court for "interpretation", and this is expected to take up to five months. There's plenty of ambiguity to keep the lawyers in business. The question is, can the Premier League take its 2013-14 rights deal to market amidst the uncertainty?
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