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Premier League challenges Murphy’s law

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An appeal to the European courts by a Portsmouth landlady over whether it is legal to show foreign TV channels broadcasting Premier League games is to be heard on Tuesday 5th October. While the sight of Premier League matches being broadcast in pubs at 3pm on a Saturday is a common one across the UK the practice is, at present, illegal.

As a result Karen Murphy, who runs The Red, White, and Blue pub was convicted of “fraudulent reception of transmissions” at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court in January 2007 for showing Premier League matches.

However, Murphy argues that her conviction should be quashed as it is not in line with European Commission legislation. As Murphy purchased the TV subscription legitimately through Greek broadcaster Nova – a legitimate European-based supplier – she argues she should be able to show the matches they screen.

The Premier League contests this and argues that Murphy’s broadcasting of games is illegal as she did not have an agreement in place with the rights holders for the UK. At the time that was BSkyB although now both Sky and ESPN hold these rights.

The potential ramifications of the case are of course huge for both the Premier League and broadcasters who wish to purchase TV rights. With the BBC reporting that the Premier League’s current TV deal, running from 2010-13, is worth a whopping £1.782bn any legal tinkering with the formula at European level is bound to cause a fierce response from the Premier League.

If pub landlords pay to broadcast live games via Sky legitimately they can expect to pay around £15-20,000 per annum. Murphy on the other hand only had to pay £800 per annum to subscribe to Greek broadcaster Nova, back in 2007. Should Murphy win the idea of domestic and international markets will be blown apart and the Premier League’s business model will need to be seriously rethought as TV revenues would surely drop.

While the European Commission’s response has yet to be heard the British government did seem to side with the Premier League back in 2006: “It is not illegal for a pub/publican to subscribe to a foreign satellite channel as opposed to BSkyB and as the DTI have stated nor is it illegal to import decoder cards from the European Union,” said then DCMS minister James Purnell. “However, the legality of screening live UK football games carried on that channel depends on how the copyright to those games was sold/distributed”.

This was read by many as giving the green light to subscribe to foreign channels – so long as they were turned over when an event was screened which British broadcasters held the rights to. Murphy is expected to challenge this by arguing that Saturday 3pm kick-offs are exempt as there’s a Premier League blanket ban on British broadcasters airing games at the traditional kick-off time. Therefore her foreign feed is not in competition with British rights holders.

Of course the Premier League argues its clubs are being deprived of their rightful TV revenue and even bodies through the turnstiles. The blanket ban on Saturday 3pm broadcasting has always been in place to encourage fans to go to games rather than sitting and watching in the pub.

Karen Murphy v Media Protection Services Ltd (acting on behalf of the Premier League) is a case that has been dragging on since 2007 and while Tuesday 5th October doesn’t represent the final whistle – as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has to first pass its decision back to the British courts – it is a case that looks deep into injury time.

Should the decision come down on the side of Karen Murphy the ruling could have as much impact upon the football industry as ECJ Case C-415/93, ECR I-4921 – better known as the Bosman ruling.

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