Roland Garros Ruling 'Relatively New' to French Case Law, Lawyer Says

4 June 2008

Not two months after France's president said the country would see a controlled opening of its betting market, a Paris court's decision to block foreign online gambling operators from the French Open could set a dangerous legal precedent in Europe.

The Court of First Instance, or the Paris Civil Court, on May 30 found in separate but identical rulings that Expekt and Unibet -- online gambling operators licensed in Malta -- violated the French Tennis Federation's monopoly over wagering on the annual sporting event, and were guilty of "free-riding," or unfair competition.

According to court documents translated by Gregoire Triet, counsel for Expekt, the federation argued that, under French law, the offering of bets that are directly related to sporting events is a right reserved solely for the event organizer.

Lawyers for the bookmakers argued, however, that the same law grants the monopoly on betting in France to La Fran├žaise des Jeux and Pari Mutuel Urbain, not the organizers of the French Open.

The federation's exclusivity, they argued further, lies in relation to the images and sounds of the tournament -- broadcasting the matches, for instance.

But the court noted in its decision that a subsection added to the French Sports Code gives sports federations the power to grant audiovisual rights to sports companies.

The subsection was aimed at allowing journalists to provide information on sporting events to the public, but does not include offering online bets, it said.

The court ruled therefore that Expekt and Unibet breached the federation's monopoly over the event.

"Free-riding," in terms of intellectual property law, is the practice of benefiting from a good or service without paying for it.

The court found that the bookmakers took unfair advantage of the tournament's reputation by unnecessarily promoting the event on more than one page of their respective Web sites.

Mr. Triet told Interactive Gaming News that the ruling is the first in a French trademark-infringement and free-riding case that goes against bookmakers' interests. He explained that in other, similar court cases he's defended, rulings have generally favored his clients, who were commercial bookmakers.

"Under French case law, it's a relatively new decision," he said.

Mr. Triet feels that for the court to decide in favor of the federation raises several issues related to European community law.

"If each federation in all sports in which [bookmakers] offer bets decides to sue one bookmaker it will totally prevent any activity on any sport, which is contrary to the liberty of trade and to some principles of the EU Treaty," Mr. Triet said.

Meanwhile, France is in the throes of infringement proceedings with the European Commission.

The Guardian, a United Kingdom daily, said Wednesday that Charlie McCreevy, the European commissioner for the internal market and services, is awaiting detailed legislative proposals from France, regarding the liberalization of its betting market, before deciding whether to take it to the European Court of Justice.

IGN was unable to reach Unibet's attorneys, but the cases were heard jointly.

Mr. Triet told IGN that Expekt is mounting an appeal against the ruling.

Emily Swoboda is the senior staff writer at IGamingNews. She lives in St. Louis, Mo.