22nd May 2022

MEPs reject intellectual property rights for sporting events

MEPs on Thursday rejected attempts by some sporting associations to establish new intellectual property rights specific to sporting events, and affirmed that governments must assure wide TV access to major events such as the Olympic Games and football's World Cup, which should be on free-to-air television.

The European Parliament passed a report adopted by a large majority (518 in favour and 49 against, with nine abstentions) that calls for the European Commission – Europe's executive body - to develop clearer guidelines on how to apply EU rules in the area of sport.

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Sporting federations had been pushing for new copyright protections for football matches and other such events, while journalists' groups and media organisations had argued that such moves would threaten the freedom of the press to report on sport.

"Governing bodies [have been] lobbying MEPs for newly invented 'IP rights', including the protection of the event as a whole, information and spin-offs arising from the event, none of which exists under existing intellectual property rights regimes," said Francisco Pinto Balsemao, chair of the European Publishers Council ahead of the vote. "This is unjustified protectionism and injurious to press freedom".

However, MEPs shot down the idea, and instead encouraged member states to draw up lists of events of significant importance that should be on free-to-air television.

In the report, the Euro-deputies also called for broadcast monies to be split evenly between the larger and smaller clubs.

The bulk of teams' funding comes from the sale of broadcast rights to television, but the sporting world in recent years has seen a growing inequality between the poorer teams and some of the top teams.

To ensure that not only the biggest clubs will benefit from the selling of the rights, MEPs recommended that member states and national sporting federations introduce collective selling of media rights so that there should be an equitable redistribution of income between clubs within the different leagues and between professional and amateur sport.

Protecting home-grown players

MEPs also pushed back against efforts by sporting federations to introduce rules requiring a minimum number of domestic players. However, at the same time, they also recognised the benefit that would derive from having a minimum number of locally trained players and believe that rules similar to that of UEFA - whereby a minimum number of players in a team must be trained in the club or in the same league - is a better than the introduction of indigenous quotas.

In 1995 in its landmark Bosman ruling, the European Court of Justice found that the right of any EU citizen to move and work in any member state meant that, when applied to professional athletes, that national quotas for sports teams were illegal.

The move has dramatically changed professional sports in the EU, with top teams now regularly filled with non-domestic players. Some teams even contain no national players at all.

Many notable sports figures have fiercely criticised this development and called for exceptions to the single market to be made for sport. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has called for the introduction of a regulation in which a team's 11-man starting line-up should include six players from the club's nation – the so-called six-plus-five formula - in defiance of the Bosman ruling. The German Sports Federation (DSB) has also repeatedly called for the consideration of the special characteristics of sport and affording it unique protection from the single market.

In the wake of the parliament's vote, the president of the international volleyball federation – the FIVB – said he was ready to fight the European Union to defend his organisation's proposed "four-plus-two" rule similar to the FIFA regulation.

"We are prepared to go to any court that the European Union would like," FIVB president Ruben Acosta said.

Until the Lisbon Treaty, still yet to be approved, the European Union played a very minor role in sport, as the policy area was outside the competencies conferred by the member states. However, the treaty gives the Union a new legal basis for sport policies, with the competence to "carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the member states"

The report, drafted by Greek centre-right MEP Manolis Mavrommatis, comes in response to the European Commission's July 2007 white paper on sport.

Mr Mavrommatis welcomed the fact that sport has a more prominent place in the Lisbon treaty: "We need to protect the specific nature of sport and it is good that the European Union will now push forward a policy in the sport area," he said, although regretting that the commission paper made no mention of women in sport, who regularly receive lower compensation than their male counterparts.

However, not all conservative MEPs were so enamoured. In support of groups such as FIFA and the FIVB, UK MEP Christopher Heaton-Harris MEP – the British Conservative Party's spokesperson on sport in the European Parliament said: "Politicians should not be interfering in sport, but the EU seems determined to add bureaucracy to anything it can."

Mr Heaton-Harris, himself a qualified football referee added: "MEPs, and politicians in general, should stick to watching sport instead of trying to regulate it."

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