Employees watching World Cup matches on the internet without a TV licence could for the first time land company directors in court as the TV Licensing Authority extends its World Cup clampdown to broadband and internet usage.
The TV Licensing Authority, however, could find it hard to police the extension to broadband use since it has no record of who has and who has not bought a PC, nor how they use it.
Previously it was believed that only PCs with a broadcast card designed specifically to pick up TV signals needed a licence. But ahead of the BBC's streaming of live World Cup coverage TV Licensing has said that it will prosecute in cases where TV is watched on a PC regardless of how it is received.
In theory, thousands of company directors could be fined because of the World Cup, since any workplace without a TV licence where matches are watched via a broadband connection is now liable for prosecution.
"Our policy would be to prosecute the representative within the company who is responsible – for example a director, manager, secretary or other similar corporate officer – at the time the offence was committed," said a TV Licensing spokeswoman.
The BBC's live streaming of games could be a trigger for prosecutions. "We make no distinction between those watching TV via PC-TV, broadband or any other way," said the spokeswoman. "If you are watching TV at the same time as it is being broadcast in the UK you need to be covered by a valid licence."
Only one licence per company premises is needed regardless of how many people there will watch TV, but any company without a licence could be in breach without even knowing it, since desktop users could watch a match without the company's knowledge.
The Licensing Authority operates by cross referencing equipment sales against licence holders and chasing down those with equipment but no licence. "We have a database of more than 28 million addresses, so our enquiry officers know exactly which unlicensed business premises to target," said a TV Licensing press release
But retailers are only forced to send information about buyers of television equipment. Retailers told OUT-LAW that no request had yet been received for information on purchases of computers, unless those computers are fitted with TV cards.
"If a PC isn't sold with a PC-TV card then we wouldn't report it," said a spokeswoman for Comet in a view informally confirmed at another major electronics retailer. "There is no requirement to do so. If TV Licensing tell us they need that information from us we would have to comply. So far they have not."
If no computer purchase information is included in TV Licensing's database, that means that it has no record of computer users from which to search for licence breakers. TV Licensing also told OUT-LAW that it did not know what proportion of UK businesses hold a TV licence.
The authority for insisting on a licence comes from the definition of TV equipment in the Wireless Telegraph Act 1967, last amended by the Communications Act 2003 and subsequent orders of the government related to it.
The 2003 Act says:
"'television receiver' means any apparatus of a description specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State setting out the descriptions of apparatus that are to be television receivers for the purposes of this Part."
In 2004 the Secretary of State ruled in the Television Licensing Regulations that:
"'television receiver' means any apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving (whether by means of wireless telegraphy or otherwise) any television programme service, whether or not it is installed or used for any other purpose."
The law is almost certain to include the Television Licensing Authority's new definition. "It seems pretty clear that the definition is drawn so widely that it looks as though a PC would be a television apparatus which under the Act needs to be licensed," said Kim Walker, media and technology partner with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.
Businesses caught watching TV without a valid licence risk a fine of up to £1,000 plus court costs.