Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 00:02 UK

Firms issued TV licence warning

By Harriet Oliver
Business reporter, BBC News

BBC iPlayer
A licence is not required to watch catch-up TV services

Businesses are being warned they could be breaking the law if staff watch live TV on their computers when the firm does not have a TV licence.

Shops, offices and other workplaces could be fined up to £1,000, the TV Licensing authority says.

The law covers live transmissions online and does not apply to catch-up services such as those on the iPlayer.

If watching via mobiles and laptops that are battery operated, they will be covered by the owner's home TV licence.

The situation changes if equipment is plugged in - as it usually is in offices. "At that point, you need a licence," says Ian Fannon from TV Licensing.

Advice 'confusing'

It has become an issue because there are more and more ways to watch television, he says.

"People can now watch on a PC or laptop, or even on some mobile phones and PDAs," he says, "and it's the responsibility of the business to make sure staff are obeying the law."

Cows watching TV
If you are watching:
A programme as it is being broadcast (rather than on a catch-up service)
This includes programmes being watched on computers and mobiles as well as TV

Paul Wells, who owns two shops in Bognor Regis, has received a couple of letters from the authority warning him he could need a licence if his computer was connected to the internet.

He contacted BBC News to say he had found the rules confusing and had found it difficult to get clear information.

"We do a lot of work online for our internet business, but we don't have time during the day to watch TV," says Mr Wells.

That should put him in the clear, but he is still wondering if he should get a licence to be on the safe side. He is particularly worried about customers who come into the shop with mobile phones and is no clearer after ringing the TV Licence helpline.

"I was told that if people were to enter my premises with a mobile phone, they'd be covered by their own licence at home, but the information on the website says that business premises need to have a licence if any devices are accessing live TV, " he says.

'Simple rules'

Ian Fannon told BBC News that the rules were quite simple.

"You need a licence if you are watching programmes as they are broadcast. At a business, the same rules apply."

He says Mr Wells' customers will be covered by their own licences if they are using mobiles. He only needs to worry about devices like office computers which are plugged into the mains, making them "legally installed".

So will businesses be left alone if they insist their staff never watch television at work? Not necessarily, Mr Fannon says.

Employers who state they do not need a licence could be inspected without warning at any time: "We have prosecuted people for watching on a computer."

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