The result, in the end, was something approaching an honorable draw, which both sides of this particular argument will now likely try to claim as a victory. The Premier League vs Karen Murphy had gone to the European Court of Justice to try and determine how the concept of a single European market weighs up against the country by country rights selling system which, amongst many, many others, the Premier League uses to sell coverage of its matches. The court found in Murphy’s case, in stating that the imposition of national borders to sell rights on a territory-by-territory basis contravened EU laws on free trade.
Murphy, however, will probably not – along with other publicans, who will likely have been watching the case play out with considerable interest – be able to continue to show the broadcasts in her pub without legal , because the court also ruled that the Premier League does hold the copyright over its own logo and anthem (news of the existence of which may well have been news to many of us) and that she doesn’t have permission to broadcast those. There may well be many pubs that will begin (or continue) to broadcast foreign feeds to their customers, and it may now only be a matter of time before the first case for a breach of the Premier League’s intellectual copyright ends up in a British court.
As champagne corks started to pop amongst those amongst us whose reflex reaction may be to cheer every time that the Premier League or Sky takes a knock, though, the reality of the situation is that it seems unlikely that the circumstances of many residential viewers will change. British Sky subsribers will be able to shop around and buy decoding equipment should they choose to, but it is not known how many will choose to do this. Still, though, the court ruled that “is contrary to the freedom to provide services and cannot be justified”, and, whilst only the most determined will be likely to shop around abroad for the best television deal that they can get, there seems nothing, in principle, to prevent British retailers selling foreign decoding equipment legally, from now on.
It is impossible to say with any certainty what effect this ruling (or, rather, the High Court ruling which will be expected to take its cue from this ruling) will have effect on the game in England or Europe. The best guess would be to say that it will not be the earth-shattering event that was reported this morning. We can certainly expect more clutter on the screen in the near future, as this is what the court found to be an infringement of copyright, and it wouldn’t seem unlikely to suggest that the next rights package to be sold will be done on Europe-wide basis rather than country by country. This, however, is mere speculation and it would only apply within the European Union anyway. The Premier League and Sky remain powerful organisations and to believe that they will merely cede the walled garden that they have spent twenty years cultivating will most likely be naive.
For the clubs, this matter is likely to remain a mere trifle, especially in comparison with other challenges which lay ahead. Television in its current form remains a dying medium, through a mixture of its own complacency and technological innovations beyond its control. The future is online, and the number of people switching to decoding boxes from abroad will likely be a drop in the ocean in comparison with the number of people streaming matches over the internet in the near future. The rights holders do what they can to close down illicit streams on a Saturday afternoon, but it feels as if they continually fighting a losing battle on this matter, small victories such as that won against, for example, MyP2P notwithstanding. This remains the square that the Premier League has to circle if it is to maintain a revenue stream that has allowed it, after a fashion, to pay wages to bring some of the world’s best players to England.
At present, the only way to watch Premier League football online legally is to subscribe to Sky’s service, which is expensive and, in many respects unsatisfactory. Broadband speeds in the UK inhibit high definition viewing, for example, with buffering being a regular issue, whilst matches shown through Sky’s online service continue to lag a couple of minutes behind what is actually happening, meaning that, for example, users watching on a pc have to, for the sake of their own sanity, switch off all social media for the duration of matches. These may be inconveniences that people watching free of charge (through illicit streams) may well put up with, but it seems at least possible that they may deter people from subscribing in the long term.
The possible effect upon clubs is equally difficult to measure at present, but the likelihood in the damage to them will be pretty minimal. The new contracts will be awarded and they will probably take a different form to the current ones, but the likelihood of consumers – or, at least, consumers that aren’t prepared to go the extra mile in the hunt for a better offer – ending up much better off seems likely to be minimal. Smaller clubs, meanwhile, will have to adapt in order to survive. If – as has been suggested elsewhere – the Premier League uses this as an opportunity to break with the 3pm black-out, then they may have to change their kick-off times to suit. Alternatively, perhaps the Premier League could make the move towards all matches being played on Sundays and leave Saturday afternoon free for their smaller brethren. Ultimately, smaller clubs will survive because they offer something that the Premier League cannot.
There is still clearly a market for premium broadcasting in the sports market, and Sky Sports and the Premier League will likely remain the only show in town for those that want this. It is also worth reiterating that Karen Murphy hasn’t exactly got what she wanted from today’s verdict. However, television rights licencing has, for Sky Sports and the Premier League, become a little more complicated today, particularly if they have to go to a pan-European model for future sales. As such, there was no significant winner in terms of legal rights today, and the biggest challenge that the rights holders and the bigger clubs may face over the coming years will come from the internet, and this is a medium that they have shown precious few signs of properly having come to terms with in recent years. Whether they can wean themselves off their addiction to television money and onto something else, is a question that can only be answered by the future.
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