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Copyrighting the English Premier League

After paying record highs for broadcast rights to the English Premier League, little wonder the organisation is fighting to protect its rights.

Fifpro was set up in 1965 with the purpose of challenging what was then a highly restrictive transfer system

BT Sports and BSkyB spent a record £3 billion to acquire exclusive UK broadcast rights to the English Premier League (EPL) for the next three seasons. It is hardly surprising that they now wish to protect these rights and ensure that all commercial properties, including pubs and gyms, that wish to show the football league are legally required to purchase a commercial license from them. At present a loophole exists in the outdated 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, which enables pubs to broadcast EPL matches using foreign satellite decoders, for significantly cheaper than a subscription to an official UK broadcaster. 

The 2012 legal case between pub landlady Karen Murphy and the EPL highlighted the complexity of copyright laws and the ambiguities in current legislation. The European Court of Justice found Ms Murphy was legally able to purchase a Greek satellite decoder and broadcast the live EPL matches in her pub. The matches were not covered by copyright law due to an exemption for live unscripted broadcasts, to facilitate the broadcast of live news updates. Consequently, EPL games are now broadcast with a three-minute delay so that they are now considered recorded programming therefore covered by copyright.

Pyrrhic victory

The case was however a pyrrhic victory, as the EPL were granted copyright protection for their logo, theme tune, branding and pre-recorded sequences, which meant Ms Murphy would still require permission to display these aspects of the programmes. This loophole has enabled the EPL to take action against venues which continue to use foreign broadcasts of the games, with 5,000 establishments under investigation this season.

The EPL is now looking to gain further protection for their broadcasts, by lobbying parliament for amendments to the Intellectual Property Bill which is currently working its way through the House of Commons. With the support of music industry bodies, the EPL seek to remove a section of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act which allows public venues, that do not charge an entry fee, to show broadcasts of video recordings without paying a license fee to the rights holder. The exclusion of this clause would mean that all commercial venues would be legally required to pay a license fee to the rights holder to broadcast the EPL.

If UK copyright laws do not modernise and protect copyright more rigidly the EPL may suffer irreparable brand damage. Supposing pubs are able to use masking technology to cover all EPL branding, they are legally able to use foreign satellite decoders, which in turn would reduce the potential income for the UK broadcasters. The sale of licenses to commercial venues is a large source of revenue for broadcasters, which is the reason BT and BskyB were willing to invest record sums of money for the 2013 rights. Without the assurance of this income the value of UK EPL rights would be significantly lower, which would have negative repercussions on the league as a whole, with less money to invest in the football matches, the teams and their stadiums. 

Fans consider the EPL as an essential fixture in the football season, and viewing live matches in a local pub is a habit for many. The current crackdown on venues showing foreign broadcasts may persuade some establishments to revert to subscriptions with UK broadcasters, but until tighter copyright laws are introduced the EPL are unlikely to combat all forms of license avoidance. Fundamental changes to UK copyright laws are required not only to protect the Premier League brand, but also to provide fans with the high quality football and programming that they have come to expect. There is no quick fix for the EPL’s copyright issues; however amending the Intellectual Property Bill will bring copyright laws someway closer to protecting broadcast rights owners.

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31 January 2014

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