A decision handed down Tuesday by a court in Luxembourg could significantly change the Premier League's TV contracts to broadcast its soccer matches in Europe, but its ramifications beyond live sports could prove to be minimal.
Hearing an appeal from an English pub owner who was fined for using a Greek decoder box to show soccer matches, the European Court of Justice ruled that country-by-country laws restricting viewing access violate European Union law.
The decision's biggest impact will come on the Premier League's exclusive contracts with BSkyB and ESPN, which are worth nearly $3 billion to the league.
It may allow individuals to watch international broadcasts without paying for BSkyB or ESPN services.
Contrary to reports published elsewhere, though, the ruling appears to have no direct bearing on the sales of foreign rights to television shows and movies, which is traditionally done on a country-by-country basis.
The decision specifically applies to live soccer matches, which the court ruled were not protected by copyright. But in a victory for the Premier League and BSkyB, it also ruled that additional media associated with those matches, such as pre-recorded films and highlights, was protected by copyright and was governed by different laws.
Films and other non-live-sports television programs are protected by copyright as works, whereas the decision applies to non-copyrightable services.
The ruling came after a six-year legal battle waged when the owner of a pub in Portsmouth, England sued after being fined more than $10,000 for using a cheaper Greek decoder rather than paying for the expensive BSkyB premium service.
The Premier League contains many of Great Britain's best-known soccer teams, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
The Luxembourg-based court, the highest court in matters of European Union law, ruled that British laws banning the use of overseas decoders could not be justified in light of the objective of protecting intellectual property rights. Rules that prohibit the supply of decoder cards to television viewers who wish to watch the broadcasts, it ruled, are contrary to EU competition laws.
But because the court ruled that Premier League broadcasts do contain copyrighted material, its ruling could still prevent a pub from using a foreign decoder to show matches publicly.
The High Court in London, which had asked the ECJ for guidance, still has to make a final ruling on the matter.
In a statement, the Premier League said it will continue to sell its audio-visual rights in a way that best meets the needs of our fans across Europe and the broadcast markets that serve them but it also compatible with European law.
BSkyB shares fell 2.7 percent in London trading after the ruling was announced.