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MEPs deny sports 'intellectual property' landgrab

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Updated MEPs today voted against* a bigger role for intellectual property in sports, stoking a copyright head-to-head between the powerful governing bodies of world sport and the media organisations that seek to report it.

As sport has become big business, the corporations that run it are seeking greater control over how events are communicated to the public. Last year's Rugby World Cup saw several news organisations butt heads with the International Rugby Board over the up-to-the-minute online text coverage that has become popular with sports fans forced to follow the game from their desk.

Big Sport is now lobbying politicians to create new "rights". Some early fruits of their lobbying campaign were discussed at the European Parliament today. Amendments to a report on sports laws being debated in Strasbourg could grant governing bodies such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) too much power over news reports, publishers say.

The debate has been sharpened by the imminent Beijing Olympics, where it's feared that as well as jumping through IOC hoops, reporters will face interference from Chinese authorities.

One of the amendments adopted by the Parliament (full list here) states:

[The European Parliament] calls on the European Commission and Member States to introduce legislation and/or strengthen existing regulations and to attach particular importance to respecting intellectual property rights relating to copyright, commercial communications, trademarks and images, names, media rights and any other spin-offs from the sporting events organisers and clubs are running, so as to protect the professional sport economy...

The amendments allow for "fair" news reporting of sporting events, but do not specify who'll get to decide what consitutes "fair". Journalists' groups suspect it will be the executives who sit on the governing boards of sports that have grown rich on their fans' enthusiasm.

In a statement ahead of the vote, Francisco Pinto Balsemão, chairman of the European Publishers Council said: "It is obvious that governing bodies are 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."

Iain Connor, an intellectual property partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said: "A football match is not a performance for the purposes of copyright because you can't reproduce it. It isn't choreographed."

Governing bodies have been successful in controlling audiovisual recordings of sporting events, Connor said, but they should be wary of trying to snatch too much control over the press.

"It's a chicken and egg situation - is sport popular because it is reported on, or do people read reports because sport is popular? There needs to be a symbiotic relationship."

He used the example of a fantasy football league to highlight the permanent tension between the two sides. "If I report accurate data that can be used to make money, you can see that the governing body might claim some of that. But they can't. It's my intellectual endeavour, I own the copyright."

Balsemão said: "News media and journalists accept the need to balance the interests of governing bodies and the press, but MEPs should be wary of adopting amendments which could damage press freedom. We need a more informed and detailed debate of the consequences before considering such steps."

Now the MEPs have made their recommendations, it'll be up to the European Commission whether to pass new regulations, and then individual countries as to how they're implemented. ®

*Update

Contrary to this report's original introduction, MEPs actually rejected the two key amendments that sought to create an intellectual property right for sports.

Balsemao welcomed the rejection on Friday: "As news organisations with large, sports-hungry audiences and readers, we are relieved and delighted that the European Parliament has largely rejected moves to empower sports events organisers to the detriment of press freedom and ultimately of the public."

The European Publishers Council said it was unfortunate the MEPs did adopt an amendment that appears to discriminate in favour of audiovisual against other news media.

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