EU rules on sports rights – will it affect eBooks?

The news today has been full of information about a decision by an Advocate General to the Europan Court of Justice that the way sports rights are sold by territory may be against the rules of the single European market.

If you’ve not been paying attention, the landlady of a Portsmouth pub bought a subscription to a Greek satellite broadcaster, enabling her to show Premier League football matches rather more cheaply than if she’d bought one of Sky’s Pub subscriptions, which can cost several thousand pounds a year – quite a chunk of income for bar in the current economic climate.

She was taken to court by the Premier League, on the grounds that they sold exclusive rights to show their matches in the UK to Sky. Her argument is that since there’s a single market (and also rules that prevent countries blocking transmissions from other ones) then she should  be able to buy a subscription from anywhere, and the Premier League has no business trying to stop her.

What’s in the news today isn’t a final decision by the court – it’s just an opinion by one of their advisors, though they usually agree with such opinions. And it essentially says that the way rights are sold, on a country by country basis, makes a mockery of the idea of a single market.

Quite what will happen if the court agrees isn’t by any means clear – of course, people will be able to buy cheap subscriptions from other countries, but if rights have to be sold for the whole of Europe, rather than just the UK, they might cost more in the long run – effectively locking broadcasters in smaller countries out; you could see someone with deep pockets, like BSkyB, buying pan-European rights, and then selling them on in other countries, effectively establishing a base price themselves.

What about eBooks?

What does this have to do with books? Most of the coverage has mentioned other ‘audiovisual’ services – which is not that surprising, as they’re lumped together in various EU directives.

But it seems to me – and I stress that I’m not a lawyer – that this will surely have an effect on most businesses in which rights are sold by territory. As the Guardian story says:

Kokott said that the idea of selling on a territorial exclusivity basis was “tantamount to profiting from the elimination of the internal market”.

If that’s true of broadcasting football matches, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t also be true of publishing, where the rights to sell a book may be held by a different publisher in each country.

Will that make any practical difference to people buying books and eBooks? I’d say that for people in the UK, it won’t make that much, because most of us are resolutely mono-lingual, and the only other place where we could buy books from in English – the US – won’t be affected by this ruling.

That said, there is a potential benefit, if a company based somewhere where VAT on eBooks is lower will now be able to sell English editions, as they may not be restricted to selling only books that are licensed to that territory. That could mean slightly cheaper eBooks for UK buyers.

Potentially the biggest gainers though, if – and it’s still only an if, lest we get carried away – this guidance does turn into a court ruling, and is applied to publishing rights as well as broadcast rights, will be people in other countries in Europe who want to buy eBooks in English, and find that they are unable to, because the current territorial restrictions mean that sites like Amazon or WH Smith will sell only to people in the UK.

So, it’s worth keeping an eye on this case. Unlike with TV subscriptions, there’s not much chance of it affecting pricing with eBooks, but it may well make it much easier for people in some countries in Europe to actually buy the books that they want, in the formats that they want.

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