Cricket fever builds tension as broadcasters vie for IPL

By Bhavna Gandhi, Lall Lahiri & Salhotra
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They say that cricket in India is a religion and if so, then the month long Indian Premier League (IPL), now in its third season, is its major festival. Millions are glued to IPL news from the time the “auction” and the bidding and buying of teams and players begins. The IPL extravaganza has been marketed as an entertainment package for all, combining glamour, sport, local loyalties and millions of dollars. However, more than being just a business, IPL has been successful in becoming a benchmark for entertaining sports and a celebration of India’s vast fan following for cricket.

Bhavna Gandhi Senior associate Lall Lahiri & Salhotra
Bhavna Gandhi
Senior associate
Lall Lahiri & Salhotra

The first season of IPL in 2008 was one of the most watched events in the country, both by TV viewers and spectators on ground. The second season, despite being held outside India, did not diminish in viewership or entertainment value or even the enthusiasm of Indian and foreign followers. In its third season, IPL excitement is once again building. Money has been pumped in by the league and franchisees, local businesses and restaurants are gearing up to screen matches for their clients, paraphernalia are being sold and broadcasters are finalizing their agreements with IPL to bring audiences more entertainment than any sport has seen in the country.

However, news of a recent standoff between broadcasters on one side and IPL and Sony Entertainment Television (SETMAX) on the other is threatening to put a dampener on the matches. The dispute relates to broadcast rights granted to agencies providing news, including TV news channels, online news and entertainment portals, print media and even entertainment media. When IPL began in 2008, exclusive broadcast rights were sold to Sony/SETMAX for an eye-popping sum for 10 years. However, news and entertainment agencies were also granted rights to telecast news relating to IPL. They were provided video footage which they could telecast and were allowed to develop entertainment and analysis programmes on the matches. Journalists were permitted to report matches and publish relating analysis in print media. Even fashion and entertainment publishers were granted rights to use video footage and photographs from IPL.

While the league and Sony/SETMAX still remain the owners of all the IP of IPL and its broadcast, they have now drafted a set of guidelines that are, in the view of various other broadcast agencies, more stringent and grant much less privileges to them to develop their content. This has the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) up in arms against the IPL–Sony–SETMAX alliance and the NBA has also threatened to not broadcast any content relating to IPL.

The standoff raises several interesting questions such as whether the unilateral development of broadcast guidelines by IPL is in keeping with its rights as the ultimate owner of IP for such cricket content. Are broadcasters justified in refusing to provide any match coverage unless granted more rights and would this detract from IPL’s prerogative to choose the manner in which its IP is dealt with? What are the limits of content in the public domain – where do you draw the line between public interest and the private commercial interest of IP owners?

The fact that the broadcast of matches is in the public interest and is beneficial to broadcasters and the league itself is obvious. However, it is necessary to recognize that it is the prerogative of the IP owner to determine how best to exploit their property. Therefore, when IPL decides and states that the relaxed guidelines for the NBA led to inefficient exploitation of their IP rights, the league is not beyond its rights to develop stringent and more beneficial rules for the use of material related to the competition. It also has the right to determine how, when, where and to what extent such material is used and who will be allowed to use it.

However, from the NBA’s perspective, it is difficult to develop any form of meaningful content when they are allowed, for example, use of only up to 30 seconds of fresh footage in a news bulletin, subject to a maximum of 120 seconds of fresh footage per match in a day. The overall limit for the use of footage is seven minutes for the entire day. In addition, no live clips may be used by news channels, which are only allowed to use footage delayed by 30 minutes. Online web portals are not allowed to carry any footage (ostensibly in deference to the IPL online telecast deal with Google).

Another question is whether it would be appropriate for the Information and Broadcast Ministry to intervene and diffuse the standoff. While, at present the ministry has so far stayed away from the dispute and denies being approached for a solution, it appears that its assistance will indeed be necessary. In arriving at a solution the ministry would also be in a better position to delimit the boundaries of public domain. When so much public interest is involved, does this not somewhat override the interest of the parties to the dispute?

No solution has yet been found. However, the parties will undoubtedly reach an amicable solution. The IPL, which was to start on 12 March, is expected to be one of the most expensive sporting events in India, surpassing even multi-sport events. And despite the dispute over the broadcast rights, it is unlikely that any interest in the matches shall wane.

Bhavna Gandhi is a senior associate at Lall Lahiri & Salhotra.

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