Premier League loses court battle against pub landlady

The Premier League has lost its European court battle against a pub landlady who was using a foreign TV decoder to screen football games rather than paying thousands of pounds more to subscribe to Sky and ESPN.

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The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that a system of licenses for the broadcast of football matches that grants certain broadcasters exclusivity in some territories and prohibits the use of decoder cards was “contrary to EU law”.

The landmark case could have major implications on the Premier League’s exclusive agreements with Sky Sports – which provides the majority of its TV income – and ESPN. It could also have repercussions on other sports and other industries, such as film, that sell broadcast rights on a country-by-country basis.

The ECJ said the Premier League was prohibited from claiming copyright over its live matches as they are not considered their own intellectual creation. Only the opening video sequence, Premier League anthem and other pre-recorded clips and graphics can be protected by copyright, the ECJ ruled.

The case came to the ECJ by Portsmouth pub landlady Karen Murphy, who was ordered to pay £8,000 in fines for using a Greek decoder in her pub to screen matches, which cost about £118 a month rather than the £480 a month subscription she would pay for Sky and ESPN.

BSkyB, which has paid more than £1bn for broadcast rights for Premier League matches saw its share price fell 3.2% to 636p after the ECJ’s ruling in favour of Murphy was announced.

The ECJ’s findings still need to be taken to the High Court in London for a final ruling on the matter.

The English Premier League and BSkyB were unavailable to comment at the time of going to press.

John Doherty, partner at law firm Manches, says the ruling will send a “chill down the spine” of all rights holders.

“This decision means the owners of valuable sporting rights must now avail of commercial mechanisms to try and protect their interests. One option would be to charge the same for broadcast rights in all EU member states so that none was offering events at a discount over others, but it may not be easy to suddenly expect poorer EU countries with smaller populations to pay the same as, say, a UK-based broadcaster,” he adds.

Tony Ballard, partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis says rights holders may still “see off the pubs” because the ECJ ruled the showing of broadcast in a pub without consent is an infringement of copyright.

He adds: “This is because the pub is perfectly free to get itself a decoder card…which the Court has ruled is a single market issue, but if they use the card in the pub then that is a copyright issue. In other words, the landlady can’t use the card to show Premier League football to customers, but only for her private use.”

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