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"Unauthorised Decoders

Volume 178: debated on Friday 12 October 1990

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297A.—(1) A person who makes, imports, sells or lets for hire any unauthorised decoder shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(2) It is a defence to any prosecution for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that he did not know, and had no reasonable ground for knowing, that the decoder was an unauthorised decoder.

(3) In this section—

  • "apparatus" includes any device, component or electronic data;
  • "decoder" means any apparatus which is designed or adapted to enable (whether on its own or with any other apparatus) an encrypted transmission to be decoded;
  • "transmission" means any programme included in a broadcasting or cable programme service which is provided from a place in the United Kingdom; and
  • "unauthorised", in relation to a decoder, means a decoder which will enable encrypted transmissions to be viewed in decoded form without payment of the fee (however imposed) which the person making the transmission, or on whose behalf it is made, charges for viewing those transmissions, or viewing any service of which they form part."

(2) In section 299 of the Act of 1988 (fraudulent reception of programmes broadcast from countries or territories outside the United Kingdom)—

  • (a) subsection (2) shall cease to have effect; and
  • (b) in subsection (5), after "297" there shall be inserted "297A".")
  • Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.— [Mr. Mellor.]

    The House will be aware that I took considerable interest in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. That measure, among many other things, prohibits satellite signal theft and gives satellite service providers certain remedies against the manufacture, importation and sale of unauthorised decoding equipment. But the provisions apply only to signals uplinked from the United Kingdom. Signals uplinked from abroad enjoy no legal protection. That means that there is no legal remedy against the growing proliferation of pirate decoders. About 30 per cent. of United Kingdom homes with authorised decoding equipment are now estimated to have unauthorised decoders provided by Filmnet. That has caused, and will increasingly cause in the future, serious economic loss to United Kingdom satellite services and their programme suppliers. Therefore, we need an amendment to the 1988 Act to enable the Government to extend legal protection to all signals originating from abroad, not just—as the present law provides—signals from countries that already have laws against satellite signal theft.

    The recent case of BBC Enterprisesv. Hi-Tech Xtravision suggests that it is not dishonest within the meaning of the 1988 Act, and therefore not illegal, to buy unauthorised decoding equipment that is available more cheaply from someone other than the broadcaster and to use it to receive encoded satellite signals. That interpretation, if followed by other courts, would render the satellite signal theft provisions of the current statute almost unenforceable. Therefore, an amendment is needed to the 1988 Act to make it clear that an offence is committed whenever a relevant transmission is received with intent to avoid payment, without requiring a further showing of dishonesty.

    Although the Court of Appeal in the BBC case that I mentioned found that the 1988 Act establishes both a primary right and a corresponding remedy in respect of the manufacture, importation and sale of unauthorized decoding equipment, there was almost unanimous agreement among the judges who considered the case that the current statute is not nearly as clear as previous law in establishing the primary right. Therefore, the 1988 Act should also be amended to clarify that point.

    The Broadcasting Bill could be an appropriate vehicle for those amendments to the copyright law. In July, in the other place, Lord Lloyd of Hampstead introduced amendments that would have achieved the desired effect. The Government, in the person of Lord Saunderson of Bowden, said that they were considering the matter and would introduce amendments on Report. But the amendments before us have not met the requirements, as I said. The new clause does not provide the protection asked for.

    Among the companies that fear that, in all probability, they will lose heavily financially are the BBC, British Satellite Broadcasting, Sky Television, the Federation against Copyright Theft, the British Video Association, the British Screen Advisory Council and the Motion Picture Export Association of America. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and the House will recognise the seriousness of the matter, which is why I have sought to detain the House at this late hour.

    I appreciate that at this late stage of the Bill's passage it is too late to amend the legislation to deal with those problems. But I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to reconsider the matter and, if necessary, be prepared to return to the issue before this burgeoning and important industry in the United Kingdom is severely, and perhaps irreparably, damaged.

    These are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to whom I shall certainly convey the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs). I appreciate that there is a problem in relation to Filmnet. The suggestion that emerged from the debate in the House of Lords was that those who sell film rights should, in all conscience, ensure that they sell them only to people who have some interest in ensuring that they cannot be readily pirated. The fault lies not with the Government, but with Filmnet for using relatively crude technology that can be so easily broken into.

    I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be only too happy to become further engrossed in those matters in due course. I, as Minister for the Arts, will not have a continuing role in all this.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendment No. 408, as amended, agreed to.

    Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to. [Some with Special Entry.]