« Applying auction theory to Pagerank | Main | After a week perfecting the pump-action, today Barney decided it was ready for the video... »

Don't own a TV? You might still need a TV licence...


In a lengthy comment below, Michael Sparks answers my question by making a compelling case that you'll only need a TV licence if you actually watch a broadcast TV over the net.

Over on the BBC Internet blog, Ashley Highfield (Director of BBC Future Media and Technology) says that using the BBC's iPlayer on demand Internet TV service does not in itself mean you are liable to pay the TV Licence Fee.

However, he continues, if you watch a live BBC broadcast via the Internet (BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament are both available) then you will need a licence.

This begs a question:

  • Are you liable for the licence fee if you possess equipment which is capable of letting you watch live BBC TV channels? The legislation itself talks about “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.”

  • Or, as Ashley suggests, is it the act of actually watching a live BBC TV broadcast via the Internet which makes you liable for the licence fee?

If the former is true, then the fact that you can already watch BBC TV channels live over the Internet implies that any household in the UK with a broadband connected PC now needs a TV licence. After all, they possess a device capable of watching live BBC TV channels, even if they do not choose to do so. Nick Reynolds, the editor of the BBC Internet blog, seems to be firmly in this camp.

If the latter is true, then those with a 'normal' TV set could now claim "But I don't ever watch BBC Channels." when caught without a licence. Needless to say, this would be a hard claim to disprove, and I'm surprised that those taken to court for non-payment of the licence fee are not already employing it as a defence left, right and centre.

Now I'm no lawyer, and thus could easily be talking tosh on this issue.

But I can't help but wonder whether Charles Moore has broadband...

Comments (15)


Interesting question - the licence fee covers the costs of creation *and* distribution of BBC radio and televison programmes, yes? If the scenario you describe above is true, and the possession of a broadband connection was enough to trigger the requirement for a licence fee, then wouldn't the ISPs reasonably claim that some of that licence fee - i.e. the distribution chunk - should come their way?

Is there room for an argument around (please excuse the pun) an iFee, which is a broadband add-on to the existing TV licence fee, including a kick-back to telcos for running the pipes?

I can't see anything in the legislation linked there that means it needs to be a *BBC* programme you are watching, just a 'television programme service'. That said I have not chased down all the pointers from the definitions in section 362 of the act: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/ukpga_20030021_en_33#pt3-ch6-pb3-l1g362

In the part of the legislation you link to I'd interpret 'installed or used for the purpose of receiving' to mean 'installed for the purpose of, or used for the purpose of', which would mean a random computer+internet connection wouldn't be captured by it.

I can't figure out how the exception about 'but is not computer apparatus' fits together with that (further down the page you link to - http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2004/20040692.htm#11).


Could someone claim the fee applies to a non-UK business-person who brings their laptop with them while in London for a few weeks?

The price of 24-hour internet access at London hotel is already high enough without adding-in the BBC licence fee...

Jim Easterbrook:

There is an important difference between a broadband connected computer and an installed television. A computer is a multi-purpose tool, which although capable of receiving broadcasts can quite credibly never be used for that purpose. A TV set, if connected to an aerial, is installed for the purpose of receiving broadcasts, and doesn't really have any other use.

If we're to start prosecuting people for what they might do with things they own, then we're on a slippery slope.

It's not quite as simple as you seem to think. UK Law takes into account intent rather than just the letter of the law as a general principle, and this is exhibited in the phrasing here:

"apparatus installed or used for the purpose of receiving ... any television programme service"

None of my computers are installed for the purpose of recieving a television programme service. That means merely being capable of recieving content is insufficient - the apparatus has to be installed for that purpose to trigger that.

This has a corollary with the TV world. This is like owning a TV not triggering the need for a TV license. (The act of installation there is tuning the TV, not that of plugging it in. If you just use a TV for watching DVDs you don't have to pay a license)

I do actually have friends who own a TV, which isn't tuned, never has been and they only watch DVDs on it - they don't have a license. I get moaned at, because of where I work, about the threatening letters they receive because its beyond the belief of the TV licensing people that people can be like that, but they don't have nor need a TV license.

Now, is the computer I own used (ever) for the purpose of recieving a television programme service?

That's a different question (it's no BTW), since it means "what is a television programme service?" (TPS). A TPS is essentially a live or near-live transmission or retransmission of a broadcast service.

IIRC that *is* defined very specifically, and boils down to the sort of thing you can recieve in the UK via satellite or terrestrial (analogue or digital). Why? It's designed to catch things like cable TV, and cable tv delivered over an IP infrastruct then youure.

However, what it means is this: you need to actually point your machine at a stream of a live (or near live) television service, in order to trigger the license fee stipulation. Merely watching some programmes which are downloaded isn't sufficient to trigger it. (due to the precise definition of a TV Programme Service)

Now bear in mind that if this came to court, the concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" also comes into play, rather than black and white. Is it within reasonable doubt that a TV that is tuned to TV channels might well be used to watch TV despite claims to the contrary? Almost certainly - because it would almost certainly be classed as "installed". If it's detuned, it's within reasonable doubt that it's not used for watching TV. However, is it within reasonable doubt that I never use my computer for watching a live stream of TV programme service? Yes.

The fact that I own and use a TV, and watch lots means I have to (and do :) have one, but not the fact I own and use a computer.

We are now in an odd situation that people can watch BBC content however, perfectly legally, without a TV license - by either using the iPlayer streaming service, or various individual programmes made available on demand on the rest of the website.

On the flipside, there are likely to be many workplaces which do not have a TV license - due to not having any TVs - where the people working there *do* access a service requiring a license, meaning that they may well be in breach due to employee activity rather than the employer's actions. (reminiscient of the Kwit-fit issue recently where employees using their personal radios has triggered action from rights holders for "public performances"...)

All that said, I'm not a lawyer, but it's based on experiences of friends, multiple discussions in the past on the matter, and notes by the TVLA in the past. If rules have changed recently (I've not heard anything mind), all bets are off :-)

Once upon a time the television licence fee was payable for the installation and use of equipment and apparatus for the purpose of receiving transmissions from a broadcasting station, that is (or was) to say a broadcasting station as defined in the Radio Regulations of the ITU. BSB, a predecessor to BSkyB, advised its customers that they did not need a television licence if all they had was a dish, receiver and monitor for the purpose of receiving broadcasts from the BSB satellites. The Government had overlooked the fact that a broadcasting station as defined in the Radio Regulations did not include a satellite. The rules were hastily changed, officials junking the precedent they had used since the 1920s and substituting for the "broadcasting station" test a new test - reception of a television programme service, an expression newly defined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The idea was to apply the licence fee to all users of television services, whether received over the air by cable or indeed from space. Then came the internet and the Communications Act and a new narrower meaning was given to the expression "television programme service" by excluding from it any on-demand services. On-demand services were to be subject to the law of the land but not to any specific regulation by Ofcom. So only linear television services are now regulated and the licence fee is an impost on the regulated television community alone.

Into this placid landscape has burst the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, adopted 11 December 2007 and due to be implemented by 19 December 2009. It will require the UK to extend some elements of television regulation to "television-like" online services, including video on demand. Will this mean that those who currently can avoid the licence fee by accessing only online programmes will have to pay? The Directive does not say. It is a matter for policy. What should the policy be? As regulators and Government devise new and expansive uses of the licence fee, there are no prizes for guessing what the policy is likely to be. But is is the right policy? Maybe it is but how is the debate going to be conducted?

Chris Marsden:

Lets consider the situation in which you have a laptop and wifi is available in your house. You [a] may not enable wifi on your laptop; [b] the wifi may be your neighbours and encrypted while you have no WEP key to unlock it.

Given the law requires you to be guilty unless proven innocent, unless you arrange a hardware fix to disable your wifi, you have equipment capable of receiving live and iPlayer functionality. Hence, just having a laptop makes you liable on a VERY strict interpretation of the law. Which is an ass, naturally...

Peter Maxwell:

After a series of ambiguous TVL responses designed to get one of their inspectors inside my house, i finally got this reply by e-mail. Perhaps useful clarification for people in my position.

BS98 1TL

Tel: 0844 800 6702
Fax: 0844 800 5816
Email: tvlcsc@capita.co.uk

Response received: 06/03/2008

Thank you for contacting us.

You will not need a TV licence.

The use of television sets, video cassette recorders, set-top boxes or DVD recorders to receive or record television programme services must be covered by an appropriate TV Licence (A video cassette recorder, DVD recorder or colour television, whether used separately or together, will require a colour TV Licence, if used in this way). A licence is also required if a TV-enabled personal computer is used to record or receive television programmes.

I hope this helps.

Yours sincerely

TV Licensing

Original Inquiry: 03/03/2008

Subject: Other

Dear Representative of TVLA

I have so far been unable to get a straight answer regarding two very
specific (but straightforward) questions I have put to TVLA in the past.
Please do not refer me to your frequently asked questions as these do NOT
answer these questions. I would be much obliged if you would answer them

1) Is a Television (that is in NO WAY capable of receiving
telecommunications independently, nor connected to any aerial, cable or
any other means of telecommunications reception) that is also connected to
a DVD player (that is similarly incapable of receiving telecommunications
independently nor is it connected in ANY WAY to any aerial, cable or any
other means of telecommunications reception - NOR is able to RECORD in any
way) in need of a TV license?

If so, please refer me to the specific statutory provisions and/or
relevant flagship case law upon which you base your determination.

2) Is a personal computer that is connected to the internet via broadband,
but is NEVER used to view or access ANY television programming (either
Live or otherwise) nor is capable of receiving or connected for the
purposes of receiving in any other way telecommunications, required to
have a TV license?

If so, please refer me to the specific statutory provisions and/or
relevant flagship case law upon which you base your determination.


Why is living in Blighty so damn complicated. Move to Spain. Forget TV licenses, ethics and social responsibility and enjoy life.

Fred Bradley:

Well, the BBC are considering asking for 'iPlayer Tax' from Broadband providers! - .. google it I can't find the link right now! -

Paul Fenton:

Pity the question was'nt asked realistically. To buy a Tv that cannot recieve a broadcast in anyway has got to be impossible/or near so, to buy. The question from others and me alike who have itchy fingers for these new games consoles is this-

"Can I buy any Tv from any main street dealer, not watch any Television Broadcast, and use it for DVDS,and Games Consoles, without lawfully needing a lisence?"

Please, please, please a realistic answer in plain English and not "Lawyers English". Hey! Who trusts a lawyer in these days? Obvious questions like this should not have to be asked - makes me distrust the Law and all its Governments, accusing them of playing the law to gain money from innocent people and not from rights and wrongs. Also BBC comes across as friendly and kind, it tries to educate us, show's an example almost idol like. So us confused and threatened are beggining to realistically Hate the BBC and are Hating anything that reminds us of BBC, like we are turning to be very nasty people indeed. Gulp!

John Baker:

It is possible to buy a PC Monitor which nowadays has the same capabilities as new Digital TV sets. I mean these new TV sets are now using the same kind of TFT and resolution technology as PC Monitors have been using for years previous. So lets say you have a "PC Monitor" whats purpose is to display the contents from your computer and you MAY or MAY NOT have a Broadband connection which MAY or MAY NOT be used for recieving "Television Programmes". In this scenario you DO NOT own a TV Set nor are you tuned into a Broadcasting Station so you can't possibly need a TV Licence. You could then Connect a Playstation or other DVD-playing Games console to this "Monitor" and you then MAY or MAY not use that for watching DVD films occaisionally but most of the time you are using it to play games on. So if you have a "Monitor" and a DVD capable games console and or PC (with Broadband) connected to your "Monitor" you don't need a TV set at all.

Alan Reader:

I wish to use my computer to watch programmes, but only using the bbc iplayer, do i need a licence. My understanding of this rule is that idon't.

this is so out of date, the people of new zealand all stood together and abolished it, why cant we?

Rick Smith:

As an American, I find this whole tv license thing to be quite bizarre and an infringement on basic rights. The government is making you pay for the right to access the free flow of information. Then they send enforcement squads around to scare you into compliance. Is this Russia or the UK? What business do they have to tell you what devices you use on your own property? It's also regressive because a poor person has to pay as much as a millionaire. I would suggest that someone start a mass campaign in which millions refuse to pay the fee. It would so overwhelm the legal system that enforcement could never be accomplished. I watch BBC on demand video over here and I don't pay any fee. Now is that fair?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 10, 2008 7:00 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Applying auction theory to Pagerank.

The next post in this blog is After a week perfecting the pump-action, today Barney decided it was ready for the video....

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.34