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.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Karen’s solicitor Paul Dixon, of Molesworths Bright-Clegg Solicitors, welcomed the decision.
He said: ‘I am absolutely delighted for my client. It’s been a long, hard road and she has stuck with it.
‘Her reaction was of overwhelming relief. She kept going because she is a determined lady and because she believes in doing what is right, it’s as simple as that.
‘This will mean other pubs are free to subscribe to foreign satellite services and show the Premier League football that is carried by these services. It will mean a significant cost saving for these pubs.
‘I think the licence trade generally is behind Karen and it has been looking forward to this decision.’