Court passes landmark judgement to protect digital sports rights holders against telcos

NEW DELHI: In a landmark judgment that will have long term effects on revenue sharing and monetisation, the Delhi High Court has said mobile phone companies cannot provide to their subscribers live match updates for sporting content for which Star India has the rights.

Mobile operates can offer updates of cricket scores with a lag of 15 minutes or by obtaining a license from Star.

The Court upheld the petition by Star India against Crickbuzz, On Mobile and Idea Cellular.

"We had moved the court against these companies and the verdict could be a harbinger of change in monetising digitised content," Star India CEO Uday Shankar said.

Star India paid Rs.38.51 billion in 2012 for exclusive media rights to cricket matches organised by the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) between 2012 and 2018. This included all international cricket matches in India and domestic competitions including the Ranji Trophy and the Irani Cup. The Star deal also includes Internet and mobile rights and covers 96 matches.

Shankar said this was the first time that such an order had come and it would lay the foundation on how the rights can be exploited and monetised on mobile platforms.

"When we bid for the cricket rights last year, our idea was to create a homogenous high quality consumer experience. We had bid for all rights, including mobile and digital, where there was no monetisation. We pay Rs 5 million per match for the digital rights, but have not monetised so far".

Shankar added that the lack of clarity on this was severely compromising the ability of rights owners to invest to create great experiences for sports fans. "This decisive verdict finally creates clarity on who owns the rights and a mechanism for monetisation and fair revenue share. For me, this is a huge boost to the entire digital and mobile space."

In his judgment, Justice M L Mehta issued a limited interim injunction restraining the defendants from disseminating contemporaneous match information in the form of ball-by-ball or minute-by-minute score updates/match alerts for a premium without obtaining a license from the plaintiff.

At the same time, the Judge said: “There shall be no restriction upon the defendants to report ‘noteworthy information’ or ‘news’ from cricket matches, as and when they arise, because ‘stale news is no news’.”

Furthermore, there will be no requirement for the license if the telecom operators ‘do it gratuitously or after a time lag of 15 minutes’, he added.

The Court reiterated that ‘there is a difference between contemporaneous dissemination of match information in the form of ball-by-ball or minute-by-minute score updates/match alerts and reporting noteworthy information or news.’

While hearing Star India’s petition, the High Court also observed that providing live score updates prevents Star India from effectively monetising its exclusive rights.

“It would be just and reasonable for the defendants to either obtain a license and gain equal rights to their subscribers, or make them wait for some time, in order to not prejudice the right of the plaintiff (Star India) to earn revenue from the match information,” the court said in its order.

“Those who do not obtain a license from the plaintiff, may not disseminate the score update or match alert before 15 minutes from the moment such score update or match alert is telecasted or broadcasted by the plaintiff (Star India).”

The Court rejected the argument that the moment the match goes live on television, it is in the public domain. “I find that match information has not entered ‘public domain’ that is, it is not readily available to the class of persons who do not have access to TV/radio, who also happen to be the target consumers."

However, he said there was ‘considerable merit’ in the argument that the operators had a fundamental right to disseminate such information as demanded by the public.

But he said that "it is imperative for this Court to balance the right of the organiser of an event to monetize his own event as against the right of the public to receive information regarding such event and the right of the media to provide access to such information demanded".

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