It's not a legally binding decision, but the first sign that William Hill might lose its legal battle against the British Horseracing Board came late last week when Advocate-General Christine Stix-Hackl delivered her opinion regarding database rights.
It was one of four similar cases on which Advocate Stix-Hackl issued an opinion for the European Court of Justice. All of the cases center on whether a group of companies, mainly bookmakers, infringed on the rights of database holders.
Stix-Hackl is one of eight Advocates-General for the ECJ. Her roll is to provide opinions on pending cases that the judges can use as a basis for their decisions. Decisions in the court tend to follow the findings of the Advocate-General.
The William Hill case is unique because the company obtained information on horseracing through independent sources and not directly from the board's database. Stix-Hackl nevertheless opined that William Hill violated the board's database right by using the information illegally.
The other three cases concerned Fixtures Marketing Ltd, a company that grants licenses for football fixtures.
At the heart of each case is what limitations, if any, operators have to use information contained in databases maintained and created by various groups. According to court records, the BHB spends nearly $7.4 million a year tracking race schedules and the names of horses and riders. This information is updated in a database, which takes 80 employees to maintain, and then distributed to bookmakers, media outlets and the general public in the days leading up to races.
Although William Hill, England's second-largest betting chain, paid to have the service beamed to its betting shops, it hadn't paid to have it posted on its Internet betting site, according to the BHB.
William Hill argued that the information it posted on its site was limited in scope to what the full database provided and was obtained through third parties, including newspapers and other information services.
Fixtures Marketing Ltd, which grants licenses for the exploitation outside the United Kingdom of the fixture lists for the English Premier League football and its Scottish equivalent, argued that various gaming operators were violating the licensing agreement by using information on their list without permission.
The company, which pays a master fee to the organizers of the leagues for the right to distribute it outside of the United Kingdom, brought cases against bookmakers in Greece, Sweden and Finland for using the fixtures list illegally.
Bookmakers can't re-use information "even if they don't obtain the data directly from the database but from other independent sources such as print media or the Internet," Stix-Hackl wrote in her opinion.
The opinion could be damaging for bookmakers and other firms that use fixture lists and racing information without licenses.
The high court follows the Advocate-General's opinion in 85 percent of its cases. The final ruling will shape the level of protection for databases and affect companies that sell data obtained through freely available information.
The cases stem from a dispute over the European Union's 1996 database directive, which was meant to harmonize a hodge-podge of national rules. It prevents the unauthorized use of a database for 15 years if companies can show they invested in gathering and presenting the information.
The cases now move to the European Court of Justice. There is no timetable for when a final decision will be handed down.
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