The reasons behind the Starbucks BBC iPlayer warning

Why is Starbucks warning about not plugging in and using BBC iPlayer?

By James Cridland
Posted 23 March 2017, 8.22pm gmt

Log into the free wifi at Starbucks across the UK, and you'll see this rather random message:

It is unlawful to plug in your device in our stores if you are watching live TV or downloading or watching programmes on demand on BBC iPlayer

Why might this be?

The law basically says "a television receiver must not be installed or used unless [it] is authorised by a licence", and "a person who installs or uses a television receiver [without a licence] is guilty of an offence". (The definition of television was amended recently to include things that can display BBC on-demand programmes as well as any live TV.)

The law then says that the BBC issues licences "subject to such restrictions and conditions as the BBC think fit". So the BBC can interpret the legislation, and set the terms and conditions for television licences.

These terms and conditions say:

The licence allows use and installation of TV equipment:

  • At the licensed place by anyone.
  • In a vehicle, boat or caravan by:
    • You and anyone who normally lives with you at the licensed place (except in non-touring caravans when someone is watching or recording TV at the licensed place).
    • Anyone who normally works at the licensed place (so long as the vehicle, boat or caravan is being used for a business purpose).
  • Use of TV equipment powered by internal batteries anywhere by you and anyone who normally lives with you at the licensed place.

So, it's fine to watch live television, or on-demand programmes from the BBC, if you are using a laptop's internal batteries. But as soon as you plug it in... you need to be in a "licensed place" - i.e. somewhere that has a TV licence.

And Starbucks haven't bought a TV licence.

The number of Starbucks-owned stores is actually shrinking in the UK - down from a devilishly high 666 stores in 2009 to only 366 in 2016. Include stores that aren't owned by Starbucks but still say Starbucks outside, though, that figure rises to 898 stores.

Starbucks could pay £130,659 on TV licences for all its stores, which represents 0.003% of total TV licence revenue to the BBC (or a few journalists or producers). Or, Starbucks could continue not paying the TV licence fee, and reminding its customers that its stores don't have TV licences. It's the customer who'd be committing an offence, not Starbucks themselves.

So: Starbucks is being quite right. While not specifically written in the law - rather, the BBC's interpretation of it - you won't be covered if you watch live TV, or BBC iPlayer, while being plugged-in. So get a bigger battery - or, like the rest of us, watch TV at home.

Interesting things to know

  • Starbucks paid £8.1m corporation tax in the 12 months to September 2015
  • If you work in journalism or entertainment, a TV licence may be treated as a tax-deductible business expense
  • You probably shouldn't go to Starbucks: there are plenty of independent coffee shops around
  • You probably should watch television at home, not in a Starbucks

More information

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James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.