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What's New? > Murphy’s Law threatens premiership football revenues

Murphy’s Law threatens premiership football revenues

Published: 5th October 2011

A ruling by the European Court of Justice has opened the door for millions of households and pubs across the UK to receive cheap screening of live Premier League matches via other EU television companies.

In its judgment delivered on Tuesday morning (4th October) the ECJ has declared that the Premier League's business model - whereby the rights to broadcast premier league matches are sold to different companies on a country by country basis - is contrary to the principle of the single European market.

The case was brought by Karen Murphy, a publican in Portsmouth, who was fed up with paying over £8,000 a year to Sky for a commercial licence to screen Premier League games at the Red White and Blue pub in Southsea. Instead she bought a satellite dish and decoder from NOVA, a Greek company at a cost of £800 per year.

NOVA had a licence to broadcast Premier League games in Greece, but the broadcasting footprint covered by NOVA extends far beyond their national borders, meaning anyone with the right equipment is able to receive the NOVA broadcast within the footprint.

Mrs Murphy screened Premier League matches at her pub and was prosecuted by Media Protection Services for an offence under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. She was found guilty and fined but she appealed and the Court of Appeal referred the question of the legality of the Premier League’s arrangements to the ECJ.

"The ruling is highly controversial.  It's still being interpreted, and we also need to see how the High Court responds," explained copyright expert Simon WIlson of Ward Gethin Solicitors.

"The copyright industry works largely on a territorial basis and to have ruled that this approach is illegal within the European Union would have caused chaos. The ECJ ruling stopped short of this and said that a football match is not an artistic work that can be copyrighted. 

"But although the ruling went in favour of Karen Murphy, there is still a problem, as all the graphics, video and music in the opening titles are still subject to copyright, and cannot be screened in commercial premises.   There may be ways around that, but the Premier League is likely to move to take action where they can, for example through encoding, or it may pose problems if the sponsor's logo is painted on the pitch."

Any venue showing TV broadcasts must still ensure they have a commercial premises licence from a broadcaster, even if now the licence may possibly be from a broadcaster in a different EU country.

Sky has paid £1.6 billion for the exclusive right to broadcast Premier League matches in the UK and it provides all the cameras, equipment and operators at Premier League games. If that exclusivity is unenforceable, it not only loses the asset it paid for, but also is providing its equipment and skills for the benefit of competitors.

The Premier League is likely to have to radically rethink the sale of licences if this judgment stands.  Sky is unlikely to want to pay £1.6bn when it renews its licence in 2013 if the British public have deserted it for cheaper European providers.

And according to sports pundits, it could turn out to be a hollow victory if the Premier League loses its vast television revenues, as it is likely that English football will suffer from top to bottom; the Premier League clubs will lose income for youth development and buying the best players and the lower leagues and grassroots football clubs will lose out too.  

But in the meantime, the ruling also looks to be a victory for sports fans at home, as they may be able to buy a cheaper service from elsewhere in the EU.  However, English fans are unlikely to give the Greek economy the much-needed boost it needs, as although the NOVA commercial service is considerably less, the consumer service currently costs more than Sky. 

Simon added: "It's undoubtedly the start of more, rather than less, discussion on the topic of what constitutes copyright, not least from the fans themselves who could well argue that the beautiful game is indeed a work of art!"

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