Fixture clash! And this time it's not fans who lose out

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The European Union’s Court of Justice (ECJ) has backed Yahoo! in a court clash with Britain’s biggest football leagues. The internet search giant argued that it should not have to pay for the right to publish British fixture lists. European judges agreed and said that “a football fixture list cannot be protected by copyright when its compilation…leave[s] no room for creative freedom”.

At present all media outlets, including websites, must pay a fee if they wish to publish entire fixture lists. These payments are distributed among football clubs in England, Scotland, and Wales by Football DataCo. The company was formed in 2001 and acts on behalf of the Premier League, Scottish Premier League, Football League, and Scottish Football League.

Football DataCo had also accused bookmaker Stan James and online sports business Enetpulse of copyright infringement but the court in Luxembourg disagreed. The court acknowledged that significant work and skill was required to compile fixture lists but said that not enough creative freedom was involved for copyright protection to apply.

Mark Davies of law firm Browne Jacobson told the BBC that “the ECJ has left pretty much no scope for the English court to do anything except say there is no copyright in the fixture list”. Football DataCo disputes this and said it was confident the UK courts would rule on its side.

In a statement on behalf of the English and Scottish professional football leagues it said: “Thursday’s ECJ ruling makes it clear that football fixture lists are capable of database copyright protection. The ruling makes it clear also that it is for the national courts to determine whether or not such protection is afforded based on the facts of the case.

“Given Justice Floyd’s previous favourable judgment we are confident that the UK Court of Appeal will uphold the database protection for the English and Scottish football leagues’ fixtures, which provide much needed revenue at all levels of the professional game.”

This isn’t just an issue for big business slugging it out over intellectual property rights either. There are real world implications for fans, particularly those that run fanzines and websites, as Football DataCo does chase amateur publishers for payment.

Football DataCo charges £266+VAT to print the fixtures of one English club while newspapers pay more than £4,000. However, a football club can authorise one non-commercial site to publish its fixtures for a nominal payment of £1.

Whatever the precise legal position - and it takes immense levels of concentration and will-power to haul yourself through the legal jargon - the fact is that most fans are unaware that these rules even exist.

But exist they do and when they’re implemented by online forum moderators or fanzine editors wary of receiving a warning letter from Football DataCo, they can act as a practical impediment to the process of supporting a team.

It’s difficult to discuss your club’s on-field fate in the coming months, or arrange and advertise coaches to away games, if you can’t list who you have to play in the near future. But that could all change if the UK courts uphold the ECJ’s ruling.

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