Pub landlady wins right to screen football matches without paying Sky

PUB landlady Karen Murphy has won her European court battle against the Premier League over the use of a foreign TV decoder to screen games.

The European Court of Justice said an exclusive system of licences for the broadcasting of football matches in different EU countries - effectively stopping fans watching the broadcasts with a decoder card in other member states - is “contrary to EU law”.

But today’s verdict also warned: “The screening in a pub of football-match broadcasts containing protected works requires the authorisation of the author of those works.”

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Such “protected works”, said the judges, could include the opening video sequence or the Premier League anthem, which is a matter for copyright.

Ms Murphy was ordered to pay almost £8,000 in fines and costs after she was taken to court by the League for using a Greek decoder in her Portsmouth pub to screen matches, avoiding the League’s own controls over where its matches are screened.

But the she took her case to the Luxembourg court which said today that some UK pubs had started using foreign decoder cards, issued by a Greek broadcaster to subscribers resident in Greece, to access Premier League matches.

The pubs buy a card and a decoder box from a dealer at prices lower than those of Sky, the holder of the UK broadcasting rights.

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The judgment delivered today said: “The Court of Justice holds that national legislation which prohibits the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards is contrary to the freedom to provide services and cannot be justified either in light of the objective of protecting intellectual property rights or by the objective of encouraging the public to attend football stadiums.”

The judges said that, in trying to justify its restrictions, the Premier League could not claim copyright over Premier League matches themselves, as such sporting events could not be considered to be an author’s own “intellectual creation” and, therefore, to be “works” for the purposes of EU copyright law.

Even if there was such copyright protection for sporting events, banning the use of foreign decoder cards “would go beyond what is necessary to ensure appropriate remuneration for the holders of the rights concerned”, the judges went on.

“A system of exclusive licences is also contrary to EU competition law if the licence agreements prohibit the supply of decoder cards to television viewers who wish to watch the broadcasts outside the member state for which the licence is granted,” they said.

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Only the opening video sequence, the Premier League anthem, pre-recorded films showing highlights of recent Premier League matches and various graphics could be regarded as “works” which were protected by copyright.

“By contrast, the matches themselves are not works enjoying such protection.

“That being so, the court decides that transmission in a pub of the broadcasts containing those protected works, such as the opening video sequence or the Premier League anthem, constitutes a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of the copyright directive, for which the authorisation of the author of the works is necessary, because when a pub transmits those works to the customers present on the premises the works are transmitted to an additional public which was not considered by the authors when they authorised the broadcasting of their works.”

The verdict could mean a major rethink by the Premier League of its current exclusive agreements with Sky Sports - which provides the League with most of its television income - and ESPN.

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The Premier League has already taken action against two suppliers of foreign satellite equipment and a group of pub landlords who used imported decoding equipment to show English Premier League games and avoid the commercial premises subscription fees for Sky.

The case against the landlords has now been settled but the League is continuing action against the suppliers of decoders.

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: “At last, the end is now in sight to years of uncertainty surrounding this issue.

“The UK authorities should now very quickly clarify the position in UK law so pubs know exactly where they stand.

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“Perhaps now football will become more affordable for pubs, as live sport is a key ingredient of a great pub for millions of customers.

“The underlying driver of the problem has been the big price hikes that Sky have levied, with a 20% rise last year alone.”

Mrs Murphy’s solicitor, Paul Dixon, of Molesworths Bright-Clegg Solicitors, said: “I am absolutely delighted for my client, she is a lovely lady.

“She is extremely relieved today and it has taken up six years of her life.

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“She has stood by her principles and stood up against big business and the Court of Justice has agreed with her.

“I spoke to her this morning and she said ‘Wow’.

“The feeling is one of overwhelming relief.

“That’s her feeling today. I am sure when everything eventually sinks in everything will go back to normal.

“She’s opening up for business as normal at 12pm.”

A European Commission spokesman welcomed the verdict, saying the judges had backed the Commission’s arguments during the court hearing.

“The court follows the Commission’s belief that EU citizens should have the right to use pay-TV subscriptions across borders.”

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UK Independence Party MEP for the North West Paul Nuttall said: “I really welcome this judgment because it eases financial pressure on pubs which are closing at a rate of 28 per week.

“Ukip is all in favour of free trade and an open market in goods; this ruling upholds that principle. This lady is now allowed to buy the cheapest decoder and play sport in her pub, and good for her.”

But Tory MEP Emma McClarkin said the verdict delivered a blow to the funding of grassroots sport through television rights.

“This is not as simple as a David versus Goliath battle.

“There’s a reason why these are called territorial rights,” she said.

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“Money from television rights is funnelled back into developing the stars of the future, and I fear that this ruling will have detrimental effects on our national teams.

“National leagues should be subjected to national rights agreements. Sport is a very specific sector and not all EU single market law recognises that. This ruling certainly fails to recognise the specificity of sport.

“We will be feeling the consequences of this ruling at all levels of sport for many years to come.”

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