The EU General Court (GC) has rejected an appeal brought by Groupe Canal+ (a French pay-TV broadcaster) against commitments proposed by Paramount, and accepted by the Commission, to address competition concerns related to cross-border access to pay-TV content (see here – only available in French).
The GC found that: (i) the commitments proposed by Paramount addressed the Commission’s competition concerns in relation to its content distribution licence with Sky UK, and (ii) that the competition-infringing provisions could not be justified on the basis of copyright protection.
The key competition law issue arose from provisions in the Paramount/Sky UK licence which guaranteed Sky UK absolute territorial exclusivity in the UK and also prevented Sky UK from making its pay-TV services available to consumers in other parts of the EEA in response to unsolicited requests (i.e. a restriction of “passive sales”, the bête noire of competition law).
In 2014 the Commission began investigating certain clauses in licensing agreements between the six major Hollywood studios (Paramount Pictures, Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros) and pay-TV broadcasters which prohibited the broadcasters from providing content via satellite or online streaming outside their specific EEA member states.
In 2015 the Commission sent a statement of objection to Sky UK and the six Hollywood major studios which considered that bilateral licences that prevented Sky UK from offering access to its pay-TV services to EEA customers outside the UK and Ireland breached competition law (see here).
In 2016 Paramount gave commitments to the Commission in order to close the investigation. Paramount committed to stop using clauses preventing broadcasters from responding to unsolicited requests from consumers based elsewhere in the EEA and agreed not to enforce any existing restrictions. These commitments were accepted by the Commission on the basis that they would last for five years (see here). The Commission Decision accepting the commitments laid out the basis for the infringement, however, as is typical for the commitments process, it did so rather briefly.
Canal+ also had a contract with Paramount and appealed the commitments decision before the GC on the basis that: (i) territorial exclusivity is essential for the production of European cinema, which is mainly financed by TV channels, and (ii) territorial exclusivity is necessary to protect intellectual property rights.
The GC’s findings
The GC rejected the Canal+ appeal in its entirety.
It considered that the Commission’s commitments decision established competition concerns under Article 101(1) TFEU and that these were sufficiently addressed by the Decision. The GC noted that the commitments did not prohibit the granting of exclusive broadcast licences to pay-TV broadcasters, rather, it prohibited only absolute territorial exclusivity.
The GC rejected the argument that territorial exclusivity is necessary to protect intellectual property rights. In particular, it found that copyright owners are free to demand a premium in exchange for a pan-EEA licence. However, if a premium is paid to guarantee absolute territorial exclusivity this is irreconcilable with the imperative of the EU single market.
Arguments that the relevant clauses promote cultural production and diversity and that their abolition would endanger the cultural production of the EU were also rejected.
Finally, the GC rejected the Canal+ argument that the commitments violate the interests of third parties (such as Canal+) as third parties could still sue Paramount for breach of contract.
The case is a further illustration of the Commission’s determination to tackle measures that undermine the EU single market, such as absolute territorial protection. Consequently, the use of copyright arguments to justify partitioning the single market will be given short shrift.
The approach of the GC may also encourage the Commission to press ahead with the pending case against the remainder of the Hollywood studios – despite evidence of considerable concerns (including among politicians) about the impact of any decision on the economics of European TV/cinema.
Having said that, it is unclear what the actual impact of the commitments given by Paramount will be: given the national nature of copyright, anything other than a pan-EU licence will leave the broadcaster exposed to the risk of infringement proceedings if it sells into countries not covered by the licence.