|The English Premier League is by far the richest football league in the world [GALLO/GETTY]
The European Union's highest court ruled on Tuesday that football fans should be free to use the cheapest satellite decoder available to watch games, even if it sidesteps exclusive national broadcasting agreements.
Pub land lady Karen Murphy took her case to the European Court of Justice after she was ordered to pay almost $12,000 in fines for using a Greek decoder to screen matches in her Portsmouth pub, avoiding the Premier League's own controls over where matches are aired.
The ECJ said that broadcasters setting up exclusive contracts for each EU nation and seeking to prohibit viewers from watching games with a cheap decoder card in another member state "is contrary to EU law," a decision which goes against England's lucrative Premier League.
The decision could have a huge impact on how the rights of England's Premier League are sold in the rest of Europe and how it creates revenue for the world's richest football league.
The Luxembourg-based court said in a statement that it "holds 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."
The ruling upheld the key element of the court's earlier legal advice which the Premier League had said would damage the interests of broadcasters and viewers of its games across the EU.
Since Premier League games were sold based on national exclusivity, the games in different nations needed to be transmitted with encryption which needed a special decoder to become visible.
Some pubs in Britain, where subscription is more expensive, started to buy cheaper Greek satellite decoder cards and transmitted the games for fans there, which set off the legal challenge.
For years, the EU has been working to turn the territory of its member states into on open market unburdened by commercial frontiers that hurt continent-wide trade in the past.
The court said that the practice of selling rights on a country-by-country basis and keeping cheaper alternatives out of other member states as a blatant infringement on that principle.
"A system of exclusive licenses is also contrary to European Union competition law if the license agreements prohibit the supply of decoder cards to television viewers who wish to watch the broadcasts outside the Member State for which the license is granted," the court's statement said.
The Premier League is by far the richest football league in the world. The latest three-year domestic broadcasting-rights deal alone raised $2.87 billion.
Some countries in mainland Europe, among them Greece, offer cheaper alternatives for watching the games.
The court ruled that the Premier League cannot claim over the matches themselves, since they "cannot be considered to be an author's intellectual creation.''
It said the Premier League could only do so over its anthem, video sequences and pre-recorded films.