A pub landlady appealing against her conviction for using a foreign decoder to show football matches without paying BSkyB has won a landmark European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling that threatens to undermine the financial position of the Premier League and other TV rights holders.
Karen Murphy, who runs the Red, White & Blue pub in Portsmouth, was said to be "very relieved" after the court ruled that "national legislation which prohibits the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards is contrary to the freedom to provide services and cannot be justified".
It allows individual fans in the UK to subscribe to Premier League coverage at home from EU broadcasters other than BSkyB and ESPN, who have paid for British rights.
But if in football terms Ms Murphy looks like having her red card rescinded, the judgment is not a giant-killing that will transform the way fans watch games in British pubs. The ECJ ruled that pubs should not be able to show copyrighted material such as the Premier League graphics and opening sequences without the authorisation of the league, which may now insist on its logo being shown on broadcasts throughout matches.
"I think the practicalities of this turn on the copyright," said Daniel Geey, an EU and competition specialist at lawyers Field Fisher Waterhouse. "What the ECJ said is that the Premier League has copyright over the graphics, music and pre-match broadcast. If any UK publican wants to broadcast it, the Premier League has to consent to it."
Ms Murphy, 47 – fined £8,000 for using a Greek TV decoder to screen live matches – has been fighting her conviction for six years. She will now return to the High Court with the 48-page court ruling in her favour.
The finding creates a headache for the Premier League, which next year will start tendering for new broadcast contracts which come into effect in 2013.
It called the ruling "complicated" and said: "We will take our time to digest and understand the full meaning of the judgment."
The judgment has significant implications for content providers that wish to license their product to multiple European markets. John Doherty, a partner at London law firm Manches, said: "It will send a chill down the spine of all rights holders and make it much harder for them to protect the exclusivity of arrangements they make on a country-by-country basis.
"Many contracts will now not be worth the paper they are written on."
BSkyB shares fell 3.7 per cent but the company may emerge strongly from the development if the Premier League opts to offer pan-European broadcast rights from 2013. "It will remain our aim to secure high-quality content for our customers," said a Sky spokesman.