With the BBC providing free live streaming coverage of the World Cup and Wimbledon over the internet in the UK, anyone watching will need to be covered by a television licence. That includes business premises, although it seems that this has yet to be tested.

“Our audiences now expect to get BBC Sport on television, on radio and online — and the World Cup on broadband is our biggest commitment yet to bringing people major events where and when they want them,” said BBC director of sport Roger Mosey.

“We know a lot of online viewing is done in the office, so we suspect this will allow people both to do their job and to keep up with the very latest action from Germany.”

While network administrators may be concerned about the extra traffic over their networks, company directors could face prosecution if employees are caught watching television over the internet without a licence, with a fine of up to £1000 plus court costs.

The BBC is largely funded by the television licence. It collects and enforces television licences through an organisation known as Television Licensing.

A television license entitles the licence holder and anyone who lives with them to watch television on any device at that address or on any device powered solely by internal batteries.

Television Licensing says that a licence is still required if someone uses a personal computer or a mobile phone to receive television programmes as they are being broadcast in the UK.

According to the licensing authority, a business requires a television licence for every site at which it uses or installs equipment to receive or record television programmes. With live coverage now available over the internet that now includes personal computers.

Under the Communications Act of 2003, it is a criminal offence for anyone to install or use a television receiver or even to have reasonable grounds for believing that another person intends to install or use a television receiver without a licence.

The Communications Act defines 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.”

In the Communications Act, a ‘television programme service’ means any of the following: “(a) a television broadcasting service; (b) a television licensable content service; (c) a digital television programme service; (d) a restricted television service”.

The definition of a receiving a television programme service was revised in the Communications (Television Licensing) Regulations in 2004 to include “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”.

“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 law firm Pinsent Masons.

It is not clear whether anyone selling or leasing a personal computer could be considered a ‘dealer’ under the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1967 and would therefore be obliged to inform the BBC every time such equipment is sold or hired.

However, log files of internet traffic could potentially be used to identify sites receiving television programmes online. This could put the BBC in the awkward position of possessing information that could be used to identify unlicensed reception of television programmes, which it appears may in itself be criminal offence.

The BBC spent £152 million pounds last year collecting and enforcing television licences.

We asked TV Licensing whether there has ever been a successful prosecution for receiving such a television programme service over the internet.

They were unable to provide any record of such a prosecution or legal precedent, saying: “We don’t currently break down prosecutions by device as it’s only recently become more commonplace for television receiving equipment other than traditional television sets to be used. However we can confirm that we have caught evaders using PCs to watch television.”