PUBS that show live Premiership games via foreign channels have been shown a yellow card. After two years of cagey manoevering around the legal grey area Premier League and Sky Sports chiefs now feel strong enough to make their move and landlords with the offending satellites and decoders could face prosecution.
Several previous attempts by the Premier League and Sky to enforce their copyright through prosecution failed with a string of landlords being acquitted in civil courts after judges decided variously that equipment was legal, licensees had not been “knowingly dishonest” and the exclusivity of the Sky deal could not cover broadcasts made from abroad.
Now PL and Sky enforcers are ready to step up a gear – but is their strategy fatally flawed? Can they stop the broadcasts? And even if they win, will bar stool regulars return to the Riverside?
Media Protection Services – the group set up by Sky and the Prem to protect their copyright and which has conducted the past prosecutions – last year switched tack and turned their attention to the foreign broadcasters and the channels in question sent out letters to subscribers with a legal notice advising pubs to stop transmitting and warning they could be open to prosecution.
Some licensees who were prosecuted earlier were acquited after claiming they were unaware the foreign satellites were illegal and have used the defence of “subjective dishonesty” but Ray Hoskin, managing director of MPS, said receipt of the letters effectively removed that defence and if they choose to ignore this they face prosecution.
He said: “We go into the pub and identify which supplier they are using. We will then deliver a letter from the foreign broadcaster stating the licensee cannot use the foreign decoder card for transmissions that clash with our own exclusive broadcasts. This is their warning that they will be prosecuted.”
Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson said: “We are trying to inform landlords on the legal position”. And Tony Payne, chief executive of the Federation of Licensed VictuallersÃÂ¹ Associations, said: “The warnings will give licensees no defence. They need to go back and get their money off the people that sold them the equipment.”
That strategy chalked up a major win in a replayed fixture last week when Karen Murphy, licensee of the Red, White and Blue in Southsea was convicted at Portsmouth Magistrates . She was appearing for a second time on the same charge and had previously been acquitted after using the “subjective dishonesty defenceyÃ¢Â? This time she was found guilty and fined ÃÂ£3,000 plus costs.. She has appealled. PL spokesman Johnson said: Ã¢ÂÂWe hope it lays to rest once and for all the so-called debate over the illegal use of foreign satellite systems.”
The authorities are also going for suppliers of the foreign cards and equipment. Since the turn of the year they have issued High Court writs against two suppliers, namely QC Leisure and AV Station plc. Mr Johnson added: Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs not a case of an either/or strategy. We are just going after people that have broken the law, whether it is licensees or suppliers. But there is a continuing push to take suppliers out of the equation.Ã¢Â?
That all seems cut and dried. However, a network of pub landlords is mounting a defence and could be ready to mount a European campaign to protect the lucrative operation. The website pubfootball.co.uk is organisinga defence fund for convicted landlords to appeal and is ready to use Sky’s own operations on the continent as the basis for its fightback.
They point out that Sky has knowingly sold tens of thousands of decoders and cards to thousands of British and Irish bars in Spain, Greece and wherever toursist gather for their egg and chips, John Smiths and the latest live matches from back home despite the equipment being used in EU nations that are covered by broadcast deals that give local broadcasters the legal copyright. That is that Sky are helping landlorsd do the very thing in Europe that they are complaining about back home.
“Why dont the Premier League take this to the High Court to nip it in bud?,” the website asks? “It has been believed Sky have over 1 million subscriptions running in countries outside of the United Kingdom. It is easy to get Sky in Europe as broadcasters are aware that there are no criminal elements to using it and also because of European trade law
“If the High court where to set the precedent, then it is believed that Sky would be under immense pressure to pull all of their decoders from these countries, effectively taking a step backward in their bid to win the European market.”
Not that it will make much difference. It the screens go blank there wouldn’t be a massive exodus from the pubs to the Riverside. The problems that drove people remain: tickets are still over-priced, the Premiership remains an uncomptitive league, the players remain overpaid and remote, the matchday atmosphere remains sterile for most games.
The people who were priced out or alienated by the football will not rush back without fundamental change. The pubs will simply switch back to watching Sky Sports News with the excellent Jeff Stelling turned and Bernie and Ali blaring in the background.
Meanwhile the battleground will switch to a smaller screen as those determined to watch the game no matter what will gather around their PC. With easily downloaded software and a bit of searching it is a minor matter to find an internet link for the live broadcasts of almost every Premiership game and most other prestige encounters from across the world.
There can be problems with buffering and jamming, connection can be thrown out and the commentary is jibberish, unless you have a smattering of Mandarin but again, turn the volume down and switch on the tranny and you are laughing. That will be far harder to police, if not impossible. And it is not beyond the technical know how of most ordinary punters to run a USB feed from the lap-top to the television.
If the plug is pulled on the satellite show the pubs could be back in business very quickly.