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ECJ opinion on Karen Murphy v Premier League

Thu 3rd Feb 2011 | Television & Broadcasting

In the view of Advocate General Kokott, territorial exclusivity agreements relating to the transmission of football matches are contrary to European Union law

European Union law does not make it possible to prohibit the live transmission of Premier League football matches in pubs by means of foreign decoder cards

The Football Association Premier League Ltd (the FAPL) is the marketing organisation for the top English football league. The FAPL essentially grants its licensees the exclusive right to broadcast matches and exploit them economically within their respective broadcasting areas, generally the country in question. In order to safeguard this exclusivity, licensees are obliged to prevent their broadcasts from being able to be viewed outside their respective broadcasting areas. To that end, each licensee is required to encrypt its satellite signal and to transmit it in encrypted form to subscribers within its assigned territory.

Subscribers can decrypt the signal using a decoder, which requires a decoder card. The exclusivity agreement also imposes restrictions on the circulation of authorised decoder cards outside the territory of each licensee.

The main proceedings in the present references for preliminary rulings concern attempts to circumvent this exclusivity. Companies import decoder cards from abroad, in the present proceedings from Greece, into the United Kingdom and offer them to pubs at more favourable prices than the broadcaster in that State.

This practice makes it possible for pubs in the UK to show the live transmission of Premier League football matches using a Greek decoder card. The FAPL is attempting to stop that practice by means of a judicial ruling. Case C-403/08 concerns civil-law actions brought by the FAPL against the use of foreign decoder cards. Case C-429/08 relates to criminal proceedings which have been brought against the landlady of a pub who used a Greek decoder card to show Premier League matches.

The High Court has, in each set of proceedings, referred several questions to the Court of Justice on the interpretation of EU law.

Advocate General Juliane Kokott explains that the exclusivity rights in question have the effect of partitioning the internal market into quite separate national markets, something which constitutes a serious impairment of the freedom to provide services.

With regard to possible justification for the restriction of the freedom to provide services, the Advocate General examines the protection of industrial and commercial property and, in particular, addresses the question whether live satellite transmissions of football matches involve rights the specific subject-matter of which requires a partitioning of the internal market.

In this connection she first states that the specific subject-matter of the rights in live football transmissions lies in their commercial exploitation. In the present cases, the live transmission of Premier League football matches is exploited, in particular, through the charge imposed for the decoder cards.

Advocate General Kokott takes the view in this connection that the economic exploitation of the rights in question is not undermined by the use of foreign decoder cards, as the corresponding charges have been paid for those cards. Whilst those charges are not as high as the charges imposed in the United Kingdom, there is, according to the Advocate General, no specific right to charge different prices for a work in each Member State. Rather, it forms part of the logic of the internal market that price differences between different Member States should be offset by trade.

The marketing of broadcasting rights on the basis of territorial exclusivity is tantamount to profiting from the elimination of the internal market. Consequently, the specific subject-matter of the rights in the transmission of football matches does not justify a partitioning of the internal market, and thus also does not justify the resulting restriction of the freedom to provide services.

Advocate General Kokott further takes the view that the contractual restriction on using decoder cards in the State of origin only for domestic or private use, but not for commercial use – for which a higher subscription charge is payable – also cannot justify a territorial restriction of the freedom to provide services. The Member State concerned may, however, in principle make provision for rights which allow authors to object to the communication of their works in pubs.

So far as concerns the question whether the showing of live transmissions of football matches in pubs infringes the exclusive right of communication to the public of protected works within the terms of the Copyright in the Information Society Directive1, the Advocate General explains that, as EU law stands at present, there are no comprehensive rights which protect the communication of a broadcast to the public where no entrance fee is charged.

Advocate General Kokott further expresses the view that the application of the principle of the freedom to provide services is also in line with the Satellite and Cable Directive and with European competition law. Equally, neither does the Conditional Access Directive constitute a barrier to the use of foreign decoder cards.

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