The emergence of internet protocol television delivered over broadband data networks poses an interesting question about the need for a television licence.

The television licence in the United Kingdom is now collected under the provisions of the Communications Act 2003, which replaces the old Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949.

The Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to install or use a television receiver for the purpose of receiving any television programme service without a valid TV licence.

A television programme service is defined as a television broadcasting service, a television licensable content service, a digital television programme service, or a restricted television service.

According to the TV Licensing Authority, which is charged with collecting the licence, a television receiver includes a television set, a video cassette recorder, a set-top box, a TV-enabled personal computer or other equipment designed or modified to enable it to receive television programmes.

Specifically, the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations 2004 define a television receiver as “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 regulations also state that “any reference to receiving a television programme service includes a reference to receiving by any means any programme included in that service, where that programme is received at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public by virtue of its being broadcast or distributed as part of that service.”

While this may seem all-inclusive, in the world of internet protocol television or IPTV, where audio and video are transmitted over a data network to a remote decoder, the interpretation of receiving may possibly be open to interpretation or challenge.

Communications regulator Ofcom has been quoted as saying that there is a grey area as to whether a licence is required for watching television on the internet. A spokesman told informitv that it was “not an Ofcom issue” and referred the matter to the TV Licensing organisation.

TV Licensing, which is the agent for the BBC as the licensing authority, says it is responsible for interpreting the legislation and for determining licensing requirements in specific circumstances, although ultimately that is a matter for the courts and the government.

A TV Licensing representative told informitv: “If you choose to view live programmes on a PC (i.e. the PC receives the television programme over the internet through streamed data, online, live and fed in real time), in essence you are watching the programme at the same time as it is being broadcast throughout the UK, then you are required to be covered by a valid TV licence.”

TV Licensing remains adamant that there is no “legal loophole” or “grey area” and that their position is “unambiguous”, although they are unable to confirm whether anyone has ever been successfully prosecuted, saying “We do not collate information on whether prosecutions were due to illegal viewing of television programme services on a PC”.

A representative of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said that it was “monitoring the situation”.

The government is due to publish its Green Paper on the renewal of the BBC Charter. The television licence may be assured in the short term, but is in danger of appearing to be something of an anachronism in the new world of video services delivered digitally, whether by means of “wireless telegraphy” or otherwise.