Pub owners take BSkyB to EU Court

The past few years have seen a number of bar owners prosecuted and fined for allegedly showing exclusive sports in their pubs and bars without paying royalties to the likes of BSkyB, Setanta and other rights-holders. A test case is now meandering towards the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and one expert says the case might make “uncomfortable reading” for Sky and other UK rights holders.

The case was transferred to the ECJ by the UK High Court. Trade publication BarKeeper says the case involves a number of British publicans demanding the right to use decoders and cards legitimately obtained and imported into the UK. The publicans argue that decoder cards legitimately purchased in Greece and imported by a distributor do not contravene European law that prevents pirated decoder cards being used to receive satellite TV signals illegally. They believe that under the EU’s free-trade laws, they should be allowed to import the decoders and cards from member states and the legal firm of Denton Wilde Sapte, representing a range of sporting bodies including the UK’s Premier League, believes that there’s a “strong possibility” that the outcome could destabilise BSkyB and Setanta’s right to demand payment for any coverage of Premier League matches in pubs in the UK.

This, say the lawyers, would have disastrous implications for the Premier League’s income from the satellite broadcasters. Any such ECJ and UK High Court finding in favour of the publicans would represent a direct challenge to the licensing of media rights on a territory-by-territory basis and to the willingness of pay-TV operators to pay handsomely for exclusive rights within their markets, commented Alex Haffner, a senior associate with Denton Wilde Sapte.

The Premier League has argued that an ECJ result against this practice would destabilise the market and disadvantage consumers.

For the UK’s publicans, however, a positive result would save them £9,000 a year. “We are watching this case with great interest,” VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben, told the trade publication. “However I think a hearing date of this summer might be optimistic. Sky is currently a massive cost to publicans and the return becomes more questionable all the time. The cost has been escalating at a time when the offering is reducing and sterling is working significantly in Sky’s favour. Our discussions with Sky to date have been less than encouraging,” he added, “A successful case in Europe would be of significant benefit.”

The Licensed Victuallers Association (which represents publicans) in Ireland is also watching this case with great interest as it has clear implications for the Irish market also, according to LVA Chief Executive Donall O’Keeffe.