Japanese Public Broadcaster's License Fee Victory Raises Concerns About Mobile Device Users' Liability

Courtesy of Nintendo
Nintendo DS

NHK won the first court case against a household that refused to sign a contract.

TOKYO -- Japan’s public broadcaster NHK won a $1,100 (109,000 yen) judgment against a household that refused to sign a license fee contract after buying a television in 2009. The wording of the judgment could mean users of smartphones, tablets or other devices with TV tuners, but who don’t own televisions, are liable to pay the monthly fees.   

On June 27, a court in Sagamihara, southwest of Tokyo, ordered that the household had to pay the license fee -- the license fees fund NHK -- after repeated requests to sign a contract and despite claims that their television was broken. NHK has won court cases in the past where viewers had signed contracts but then refused to pay license fees.   

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The language used in the court’s decision has been interpreted as meaning that people who have devices ranging from mobile phones to car navigation systems to Nintendo DS portable game consoles could be taken to court by NHK if their household isn’t already paying license fees.  

“According to the Broadcast Law, you are required to enter into a contract with NHK to pay the receiving fees for any device that can get TV signals,” an NHK spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter, adding that there haven’t been yet been any cases of the broadcaster attempting to enforce the rules on devices other than television sets.

The vast majority of Japan’s famously law-abiding citizens had traditionally paid the license fees despite a lack of legal penalties for failing to do so. However, a slew of scandals at the broadcaster saw non-payment peak at around a million households in the mid-2000s. Following this, NHK began to chase non-payers, including taking them to court.

NHK’s license fees were reduced by 10 percent to $12.30 (1,225 yen) in October 2012, the first change in the level of the payments in decades. This loss of income is believed by many to be driving NHK’s harder line on the collection of fees.   

Twitter: @GavinJBlair