Websites that retransmit live TV over the internet without permission from broadcasters are in breach of copyright, Europe’s highest court has ruled in a judgment with wide ranging implications.
The landmark ruling published on Thursday by the European court of justice (ECJ) means that dozens of sites showing live TV in the UK, including the London-based TVCatchup.com, must now get rights clearance from broadcasters.
Legal experts said the decision was likely to spark a renewed clampdown by rights holders against similar sites, many of which show live sport.
The case was brought by ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 against TVCatchup.com, which streams free-to-air shows from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
The ECJ decided that the website, which carries pre-roll advertising before shows, was in breach of a 2001 law that describes the original broadcasters as “authors” of the programming, giving them the exclusive right to approve or restrict its use.
“EU law seeks to establish a high level of protection for authors of works, allowing them to obtain an appropriate reward for the use of those works,” the ECJ said in its judgment.
“Television broadcasters may prohibit the retransmission of their programmes by another company via the internet.
“That retransmission constitutes, under certain conditions, a ‘communication to the public’ of works which must be authorised by their authors.”
An ITV spokeswoman said: “ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 welcome the judgment by the European court of justice. The judgment makes it clear that, subject to some limited defences, broadcasters and content producers should be able to prevent unauthorised streaming of free-to-air channels.
“We now look forward to the UK court’s implementation of this judgment. We reserve the right to pursue any site or service we believe to be infringing our copyright or using our content in an unlicensed, illegal capacity.”
However, the TVCatchup.com director, Bruce Pilley, insisted that the ruling would impact “barely 30%” of its 12 million registered users.
TVCatchup has argued that licences granted to ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 by media regulator Ofcom also apply to subsidiary channels such as its own service.
Pilley said: “TVCatchup.com is here to stay, we are not thinly disguised purveyors of filth, we remain Europe’s first and only legal internet cable service and the ECJ opinion affects only a handful of channels we carry.”
Until Thursday, it was unclear whether the unauthorised retransmission of live TV online was in breach of copyright laws.
Tony Ballard, a broadcast lawyer and partner at London law firm Harbottle & Lewis, said the ruling was significant.
He added: “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.
“On the one hand, it is strengthening authors’ rights, such as by extending the concept of communication to the public, which subsumes the old broadcasting right, to encompass the activities of those who, like TVC, intervene in the distribution of broadcast services.
“On the other, it is limiting those rights in pursuit of single market principles by outlawing exclusive national licensing, extending the principle of exhaustion of rights to downloads, limiting the amount that copyright proprietors may charge as royalties and balancing owners’ rights against those of users.”