Satellite battle to break monopoly

By Iain O'Neil

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Foreign satellite Foreign satellite football Premier league

Satellite battle to break monopoly
Confusion still reigns over the question of whether it is legal to use foreign satellite stations to show Premiership football in pubs. IAIN O'NEIL examines the issues

Despite persistent warnings from legal experts that showing foreign satellite football is a breach of copyright, the trend for pubs to screen matches via German, Greek or Arabic TV stations appears to be growing.

Faced with Sky's ever-increasing costs, it is easy to see why licensees want to believe there is a cheap, legal alternative and why suppliers of foreign satellite systems want to break Sky's monopoly on the cash cow that is Premiership football.

It is also clear there is no shortage of licensees willing to take a chance, although Sky and the FA Premier League (FAPL) have used copyright law to prosecute all but a handful of the licensees they have caught in the act.

However, a growing band of satellite equipment providers quote European free-trade laws to back their argument that there is - or should be - a legal alternative to Sky.

So licensees up and down the country continue to find themselves in the courtroom - and this week it was the turn of Karen Murphy of the Red, White & Blue in Southsea.

Brewery suggested system

Murphy is one of a group of five Portsmouth licensees who are being prosecuted for showing Pompey matches to punters who do not mind an Arabic commentary or half-time adverts for Greek supermarkets.

But what makes them different from most is their legal representation - the group pooled a £15,000 fighting fund to pay for lawyers and an expert witness. They hope their team will stop them going the same way as the majority who are found guilty and pay fines averaging £1,000, with court costs which can stretch into thousands.

Claiming they never showed matches during the closed period, the "Pompey Five" believe they are doing nothing illegal. Murphy can even prove she was introduced to the system by her brewery, Gales. And this week that helped her walk free from court after a judge rejected claims that she had acted dishonestly.

Despite this, the dispute is set to rumble on and the four other licensees, whose cases are due in Portsmouth law courts in the coming weeks, will continue to find themselves in the middle of a battle that could have huge consequences for Sky, the FA and the future of satellite TV.

Sky's case is simple. It pays the FAPL a handsome sum for exclusive rights to the pictures and sounds its cameras and microphones capture at English football grounds. The deal makes it the copyright holder for all live Premiership football on TV in the UK. End of story - or so it would seem.

But confusion arises from the complicated contract between Sky and the FAPL. Although Sky's cameras and equipment capture the images at football grounds and Sky has the rights to show them here, the FAPL owns the images and sound and sells the rights to show them back to Sky.

The situation is further complicated because the FAPL also sells the images to some 200 other broadcasters in 200 countries. Each broadcaster owns the copyright to those images and sounds in their own countries. This includes ART, the Arabic radio and TV network, and Nova, the Greek satellite provider that shows the Premiership on its SuperSport channel.

The images are beamed into space, filtered and sent to satellites, which send them back to earth to the countries that have paid their FAPL dues.

After taking those pictures and sounds from Sky's cameras the foreign stations tweak them a little. Most at least incorporate their own logo because they want their brand associated with the Premiership the same way Sky does - and they have paid for the right to do so.

Easy to get hold of smart cards

Problems arise because satellites are not able to send their signal to specific countries. A satellite's footprint - the area of the Earth's surface covered by its signal - often spans numerous countries, each one with its own deal with the FA and its own Premiership football programmes.

So all you need to view the Greek SuperSport programmes in the UK is a satellite dish, decoder box and a Greek satellite company's smart card - because it can't help but send its signal to your house or pub. Getting hold of a Greek satellite station's smart card is easy these days with a multitude of equipment providers offering them for about one 10th the price of the average commercial Sky card. Pubs can get access to Premiership football for as little as £50 a month from the numerous websites offering "a legal alternative to Sky".

Greek satellite providers only issue smart cards to addresses in Greece but once they are issued they have no control over where they end up. In the same way, Sky is unable to stop bars on the Costa Del Sol showing its live games.

Wherever these smart cards end up they will do exactly what they are made for and decode signals into TV programmes.

Ray Hoskin, managing director of Media Protection Services, is employed by the FAPL, Sky, Irish satellite station Setanta and the Scottish Premier League to prosecute licensees who breach their copyright. He has been behind more than 1,000 prosecutions over the past 14 years and says he has only lost six cases. He says the use of foreign satellite cards is a relatively new twist but, in his opinion, doesn't alter the legal position.

"If someone shows games in a pub without paying Sky's commercial fee they can be prosecuted," says Hoskin. "We are currently carrying out around 30 prosecutions each month."

Despite the number of successful prosecutions there is still a belief that showing foreign satellite football is a "grey area" - which Hoskin disputes.

No such thing as a 'grey area'

Karen Murphy was introduced to the Greek Nova system at a sales meeting organised by Gales, which promoted the use of foreign satellite as an alternative to Sky. Murphy told the court that when she started to get letters from Sky and the FAPL she went back to Gales who said it was a "grey area".

"'Grey area' is a lovely British expression which has no basis in law," says Hoskin. "Something is either legal or illegal - there is no such thing as a 'grey area' in law." And he blames satellite equipment suppliers for creating the myth.

But one supplier puts the blame for the whole mess back with Sky. Mike Cobain from - an internet-based satellite systems provider, which offers German, Greek and Arabic packages - says if Sky lowered its prices licensees would flood back.

"I had a licensee contact me the other day whose Sky bill was £3,000 a month," says Cobain, whose website devotes pages to 'The Law' with copies of court documents from the providers' most celebrated case - former Rochdale licensee Brian Gannon.

Until earlier this year Gannon was just another licensee being prosecuted for showing foreign satellite football. When he won on appeal the result was held up as a test case by some suppliers who said it proved the legality of showing games.

Judge hits back at hopefuls

Gannon's legal representative Paul Dixon became sought-after by licensees in similar positions - including the Pompey Five. Now his firm has cases pending up and down the country.

Unfortunately for suppliers, Dixon and the licensees awaiting trial, the judge in the Gannon case was unhappy being used as a stick with which to beat Sky.

Earlier this month Judge Robert Warnock took the unusual step of issuing the following statement - three months after his original decision: "We have seen various articles in the press to the effect that our judgement in this case has in some way legalised or legitimised the use of the decoder machine such as was purchased by Mr Gannon.

"We wish to make it plain this is most certainly not the case and our primary finding was that the prosecution had failed sufficiently to prove the element of dishonesty in the alleged offence."

But Cobain still believes the day is coming when the law will allow foreign satellite football.

"The judge was right to issue the statement," he says. "Nothing has changed in law since that case. The problem for me is there are satellite suppliers who are sending out flyers saying 'law changes', and that's wrong. Trading standard

Related topics Licensing law Legislation

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