Lest you think that electronic snooping is something new…

On this day in 1952 the British Broadcasting Company — known affectionately as the Beeb — demonstrated the first public test drive of TV detector vans. Why? Because everyone in the UK was required to pay a TV licence fee to be able to access the programming available from the BBC: if you didn’t pay your license fee, you not only weren’t allowed to watch their programming, they could even take your TV, from what I recall.
But here’s what’s interesting…


Up until 1991 it was the British Home Office that actually had responsibility for collecting TV licence fees and it was, of all organizations, the radio experimentation laboratories of the Post Office that invented the detection equipment.
Many years later, you might remember that cable TV companies would test to see if you were accessing pay channels illegally (ironically, I still get spam from people trying to hoodwink me into believing — incorrectly — that a decoder box can let me watch all scrambled cable channels and that it’s perfectly legal). Then the cable companies moved to having equipment that detected how many TVs you had hooked up: if you weren’t paying for all your systems, you’d be fined or cut off.

BBC TV detection van, 1952

Click on the BBC van to read more about licence fees


In a remarkable parallel, Ma Bell also used to charge by the extension, and I can remember perhaps apocryphal stories about how they could send a ring-tone and see by the impedance drop how many extensions were on the line. Then they’d compare it to your bill and You’d Be In Big Trouble if there was a mismatch.
The more we introduce technology, the more there’s a fanatical desire to control it, to limit usage, and to squeeze every last dime out of the consumer. Or, if you want to look at it the other way, whenever a new technology comes along, people invariable exploit it and rip off corporations, comfortable in their knowledge that the little person should always come out ahead against the big company.
In 1952, British Lord De La Warr said “people without [TV] licences were receiving free entertainment subsidised by those who had paid.”
Fifty two years later, how different is that from the argument of the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America? Let’s see. The MPAA tells us that “The people and companies that create music, movies and other copyrighted material rely on getting a fair reward for their creativity.. [but ] that does not happen when [people] steal them.” and the RIAA says “Each sale by a pirate represents a lost legitimate sale, thereby depriving not only the record company of profits, but also the artist, producer, songwriter, publisher, retailer, � and the list goes on. The consumer is the ultimate victim…”
Right or wrong, isn’t it interesting that fifty years later, there are still people driving around in their virtual vans, trying to figure out the electrical waves coming out of your living room and making sure you’ve paid your proper licence fee and taxes.
And in fifty years? We’ll still be here. The technology will have improved, but it’s a sure bet that if you choose to frame the battle in terms of don’t touch or you’ll be slapped, people will keep touching. It’s the psychology of children; tell them something’s off limits and you know they’ll go check it out the minute you walk out of the room.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new paradigm, a new view of intellectual property, as we move more fully into the 21st Century.
Because speaking personally, I’m tired of vans sneaking around, checking on me. Aren’t you?

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