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Restaurants Being Sued for Showing Cable TV

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Does your restaurant, cafe, or bar feature cable TV so patrons can watch "Wheel of Fortune" or your favorite international programming?

If so, then you'd better make sure you have the proper type of license or commercial account from your cable or satellite provider -- otherwise, you could soon face an expensive lawsuit.

Nationwide, many small restaurants are being sued, or threatened with lawsuits, for improperly showing cable TV at their businesses. What's behind these legal threats?

Not Authorized for Business Use

While many small business owners may think that their own personal cable or satellite plan can be used to show cable TV in their restaurants, federal law actually prohibits this sort of unauthorized use.

For example, in March, a Texas small business owner was sued by satellite provider DirecTV for showing satellite TV in her restaurant, because her business was allegedly using a residential account, reports The Southeast Texas Record.

The Cable Communications Policy Act, along with regulating the actions of cable companies, also prevents "assist[ing] in intercepting or receiving" cable communications for unauthorized viewers. This not only applies to allowing your neighbors to steal your home's cable TV, but also a restaurant's customers watching your cable TV.

Restaurants Need Commercial Accounts

The main issue lies with the limitations of a residential or non-commercial cable plan, which does not allow a subscriber to broadcast their content.

Cable companies like Comcast provide local broadcast and basic cable channel plans for bars and restaurants ranging from $30 to $190 per month, with the license to play cable and local programming for your customers.

Similarly, if you want to play any music at your restaurant, even if you own the CD or the digital rights to the MP3, you may not be legally able to play that music in your commercial establishment without a performance license.

The problem isn't just cable television or satellite companies -- although those companies are more likely to sue your business if they catch wind of your unlicensed use. It's also the companies that own the copyright to the TV programs that are broadcast.

There are exceptions to copyright infringement with respect to radio or TV performances where the content being played is:

  • On a TV or radio like one used in "private homes";
  • No charge is needed to view the show;
  • In a restaurant less than 3,750 square feet large;
  • On only one TV per room (up to four TVs total); and
  • On a TV 55" or smaller (diagonally).

That means business owners might be able to get away with showing the Super Bowl on their restaurants' normal-sized TVs, but they can't legally broadcast a UFC fight without paying for commercial cable packages.

For more guidance on this issue, or if your restaurant is being sued (or threatened with a lawusit) for showing cable TV, you may want to speak with an experienced communications and media lawyer right away.

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