The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that UK broadcasters, such as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, have the right to block retransmission of free-to-air TV (e.g. Freeview) programming over the Internet unless the related service (e.g. TVCatchup Ltd) gains specific permission. But they haven’t won yet.
TVCatchup (TVC) allows fixed line broadband ISP and mobile broadband consumers in the UK, both on the web or via a special Smartphone app, to stream free-to-air TV shows over the internet just the same as if you were to receive them via your TV set. TVC, as recognised by the ECJ, only allows this content to be viewed by UK internet connections and also requires users to confirm that they own a valid TV Licence (i.e. much like the ITV Player or iPlayer service).
Several British commercial television broadcasters, specifically the three mentioned earlier, take exception to the distribution by TVC over the internet but have so far failed in all their previous attempts to stop it.. until now.
Tony Ballard, Broadcast Lawyer at Harbottle & Lewis, said:
“For years, nobody has known whether the unauthorised retransmission of live TV on the internet infringes copyright. The Court today has decided that it does. Where a service provider goes beyond merely maintaining or improving the quality of reception of the original transmission and retransmits it by a different technical means to the general public, a licence from the broadcaster or other rights holder is required.
The case was brought by ITV and other UK broadcasters against TVC, which retransmitted their broadcasts to its subscribers. But it is not an isolated case. It is one in an increasingly long line of decisions by which the Court appears to be laying the foundations for a new European legal order in copyright and other forms of intellectual property.”
Bruce Pilley, TVCatchup’s Director, said:
“Barely 30% of our users view such content, this would be more than compensated for by the addition of those many channels who have asked to join us. An acceptable price to pay for ending the years of uncertainty arising from the vexatious action of a handful of broadcasters.”
It’s interesting to note that UK consumers have plenty of options for accessing live TV over the internet (e.g. iPlayer, ITV Player etc.), one of which includes the latest YouView platform. Unfortunately these web-based streaming platforms are fragmented via separate sites or software clients, while YouView either attracts a hefty one-off standalone cost or requires you to take it as part of a broadband bundle.
By comparison TVC simply put all the content in one place and unsurprisingly managed to attract 12 million registered users. As usual consumers are most attracted to services that deliver the content that they want and in the way they want it – all in one easy place.
However the Court of Justice does not decide the dispute itself. It is for the national High Court in London or a tribunal to dispose of the case in accordance with the Court’s decision, which is similarly binding on other national courts or tribunals before which a similar issue is raised.
TVC intends to argue that the Ofcom licences granted to ITV, Channel 4 & 5 do still include the relevant “minor subsidiary channels” and that if TV broadcasters argue different then “their inclusion in pay access platforms such as Virgin Media and BTVision would be in direct contravention of their PSB obligations.”
The ECJ Judgement (PDF)