Premier League Soccer TV Agreements Breach EU Antitrust Rules, Court Says
By Stephanie Bodoni – Oct 4, 2011 5:50 AM ET
The Premier League’s territorial restrictions on broadcasters such as British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) showing its soccer matches breach European Union antitrust rules, the bloc’s highest court said in a ruling that may still limit what pub and bar owners can show customers.
The EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that territorial licenses are “contrary” to competition law “if the license agreements prohibit the supply of decoder cards to television viewers who wish to watch the broadcasts.” While the court said anyone can watch such broadcasts, pubs can’t show the feeds via foreign decoder cards without the permission of the copyright owner, such as the broadcasters and the league.
The Premier League, home to some of Europe’s most successful clubs including Manchester United and Liverpool, started a three-year 1.8 billion-pound ($2.8 billion) U.K. television contract in August 2010, and receives a further 1.4 billion pounds from the sale of international broadcast rights. The ruling offers something for the league and the U.K. pub owner that tried to show local matches from a Greek provider.
“On one hand now it’s very blunt and very clear that absolute territorial restrictions on how right holders license their exclusive rights are not permitted,” said Daniel Geey, a lawyer at Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP in London. “The Premier League will get some comfort that the actual feed that goes out which does contain copyrighted aspects cannot be shown without the right holder’s permission.”
Red, White and Blue Pub
The EU court case was triggered by two cases pending at the U.K. High Court. In one, Karen Murphy, the owner of the Red, White and Blue Pub in Southsea, England, faces a criminal lawsuit in the U.K. after buying a decoder card that allows her to show league games from Greek television. BSkyB, the U.K.’s biggest pay-TV operator, said the cards are “illicit” because they’re being used outside their specified area.
Dan Johnson, a Premier League spokesman, said officials would need to fully read the judgment before commenting.
BSkyB spokesman Robert Fraser declined to immediately comment. Shares of the Isleworth, England-based company fell as much as 4.3 percent after the ruling before recovering. Shares were down 1.8 percent at 645 pence in London trading at 10:47 a.m.
Even if a U.K. pub showed a feed of a soccer match via a Greek broadcaster’s decoder card, without any of the copyright- protected aspects, such as the credits, there would still be the broadcaster’s logo on the screen.
“Practically, the feed comes with copyright-protected material” and “it would be very difficult to separate the two,” Geey said in a telephone interview. “It will be interesting to see how the English court reconciles those two issues.”
The cases are: C-403/08, Football Association Premier League Ltd, v. QC Leisure and C-429/08, Karen Murphy v. Media Protection Services Limited.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg at firstname.lastname@example.org