Is unrequested, unpaid-for cable TV legal?

Sorry, tried to cram it all into one short sentence.

Here’s the scoop; I bought my house about 18 months ago. The previous owners had coax cable run through the crawlspace and all over the place. I don’t watch TV (just movies that I rent) so I yanked some of the cable out, left some in since I’ve had better things to do than pull it all out.

Today my housemate informs me that out of boredom he plugged the coax into my TV and voila, it turns out that I’ve got 70 channels, basic cable service. AFAIK it’s been “active” since I bought the place.

So, given that I have never asked for cable TV service, have never gotten a bill and just assumed that if the previous owners had a cable subscription that it expired when they moved, is there anything illegal with keeping the TV plugged in? If a company sends me unrequested merchandise in the mail it’s mine to keep, I’d assume that if the cable co. keeps my line lit without my asking and they never charge me for it it’s similar.

I’m just asking about the LEGALITY of this. I’m not looking for MORAL opinions :slight_smile:

But the cable signal hasn’t been sent to you unsolicited in the mail.
Look at it another way. You buy a house from Al Capone. Inside it is $50,000 that he has made from bootlegging, but he left behind. You find the money. I have the distinct feeling that it isn’t yours to keep.

Sure the cable signal has been sent to Valgard unsolicited. The cable company sure as anything is sending it, and Valgard sure as anything didn’t solicit it. It’s the cable company’s responsibility to disconnect the lines of cancelled accounts, not Valgard’s.

Knowing cable companies, if he calls to tell them to disconnect it, they’ll charge him for it.

The cable company made a mistake. However, once you have discovered that you can now get cable due to the company’s mistake, it is incumbent upon you to notify the company of its error. You are not liable for the past cable since you were unaware of the error and did not know that it was live. Once you have discovered that, you should inform the company. Not to do so would possibly make you liable under “unjust enrichment.”

Are you sure that the previous owners weren’t stealing the signal? That would explain why you’ve never gotten a bill or anything.

I’d call the cable company and explain the situation. Just don’t let them bill you; you never asked for the service, so you don’t owe them a dime.

I Am Not A Lawyer, etc.

barbitu8 is totally correct. If you knew or should have known that you were getting the cable illegally, you are obligated to tell them about it. You didn’t know and had no reason to know prior to your roommate’s discovery.


Is “unjust enrichment” illegal?

IMO feel free to keep it, unless it turns out that the previous owners were just stealing the cable.

I would write them a letter or email. You have a wierd situation, and the possibilities for a miscommunication are many.

According to this site at North Dakota State,

Does the lack of a cable subscription here really constitute impoverishment? Valgard has for many months had no cable subscription. It is not as though he found the cable stream, and for that reason chose not to subscribe. The cable company was getting no money, and had no apparent prospect of getting any money in this case. To my mind, this makes it difficult to prove “impoverishment,” but I have no idea what standards must be met for impoverishment to be established.

Suppose “Sports Illustrated” started sending me issues. They never send a bill, and I never asked for the subscription. Am I under any legal obligation to tell them to cut it out? Suppose I happen to enjoy the magazine? Can I keep the Football Phone and the “Making Of The Swimsuit Issue” video tape?

Being only a tad facetious with that. As Gorsnak said, it’s not my job to keep their records up to date.

I don’t think that the previous owners were bootlegging - there’s one of those grey cable-company enclosure boxes where the cable line goes to on my exterior wall and this is a single-family dwelling, not a condo or something where you could run a line off of anybody else.

Well, it’s not really that hard to open those boxes. Though if your city is like mine, then the disconnection point is at either the overhead line in the back alley, or if the lines are underground, in the steel box with phone and cable junctions (also in the back alley, and locked) - the box on the wall of the house is just where they switch from heavier outdoor cable to lighter indoor cable, and possibly mount a splitter or three. Mind you, it’s not that hard to get up to the overhead cable lines, or into the locked junction box, either.

But my best guess is that the guy who got the assignment to disconnect your place just skipped doing it, figuring nobody’d ever realize he hadn’t - or rather, some other cable guy would show up two weeks later when the new tenants called to get hooked up, see it was already hooked up, shrug and go collect the connection fee. Cable guy #1 gets paid for the call, no time expended. Cable guy #2 saves a few minutes. Everybody wins.

I had an appartment in college. We moved in in June, hooked our TV up to rabbit ears (broke that we were) and watched some fuzzy network TV. In the fall, when when my roommate and I both finally found jobs, we decided to get cable. The guy came out, and told us the cable had been on all this time (including a full range of premium channels).

We replied we had no idea, we’d never hooked it up. The guy insisted we were getting illegal cable. We repeated that we’d never plugged the line in-- why in God’s name would we call and order cable if we already had it free? It seems they never turned it off after the last tenant left.

One month later, we got a bill for $300, most of it labeled past due (on our brand new account, which they back dated to June). It took months for me to get it fixed.

Beware of calling your cable company.

If I remember correctly there is a specific law that governs unsolicited stuff that comes through the mail. And I believe that you are never under any obligation to pay for it even though you use it. That isn’t the case with cable TV though.

IANAL but unless there is a specific statute governing the matter, in general you can’t take advantage of someone’s mistake to enrich yourself as has been said.

Write to the Cable Co. and claim They have infringed on your privacy, safety and discression. You have discovered that the cable is connected and that has exposed your very young neice, nephew or whatever to the potential of viewing unsavory and possibly, in your opinion immoral content. Even though cable voltage is minimal the connected, unlabeled wire has been a potential vector for damage in a thunder storm, presenting a fire hazard. In hooking up the wire to your TV as an experiment to see if just the length of wire would act as an independent TV Antenna for local broadcast you potentially disclosed private information through the interactive features cable. Of course IANAL and just a rabble rouser but try to bill them for the hazard and time you have spent sending them the letter and assuring that they disconnect. At your going rate of $400/hour, considerating the investigation (reading and writing here) and action you feel they owe you $800, or two more years free cable for your trouble!

My local cable company considers it piracy, even though they seem to have a policy of not disconnecting the cable when a tenant moves out. I suppose they consider that an unnecessary use of manpower.

I watched free cable for over a year. I called to have service disconnected because IMO the programming available wasn’t worth paying for. They acknowledged me as disconnected right there on the phone and sent me a “final bill” in the mail to close the account. The thing is, the signal was never interrupted. I continued watching until I moved and the new tenant, I suppose, continued to do so. I figured I had done my part, if they couldn’t be bothered to actually disconnect me, it was their problem.

Lack of cable is to be impoverished as to the cable. I wasn’t familiar with any state statute, but that was the law that I learned in law school as the Common Law. State statutes may have amended that slightly, but any statute must be interpreted in light of the common law.

David Simmons

There is a federal statute to that effect, which, as you said, is not the case here.


We are not talking about crimes, but about civil actions.

IANAL. IANAAC (American Citizen).

That said, seems pretty clear to me. If Valgard unplugs the cable from his TV and leaves it unplugged, he’s not receiving a service. Therefore, no impoverishment. If he yanks out the rest of the cable, then same deal.

If he leaves it plugged in then he is accepting the service. If he were an honest, law-abiding member of the community (not saying that he isn’t or making a judgment, just trying to think how a court would look at it) then he would normally pay for a service that he uses. Therefore, at that point, he’s impoverishing the cable company to the tune of $X per month.

All that said, I’d advise keeping quiet about the discovery. If he doesn’t want cable, then drawing attention to its presence will only open him up for a bill and a fight. If he does want cable, calling up and asking them to connect him will give him a credible defence if (or, it seems, when) they do try to bill him. I don’t know how it works over there, but I believe that companies can credit blacklist you without a court judgment. Even if that’s not the case, who wants to phone queue, write and possibly go to court?

I could have been clearer in my post. I was questioning whether lack of a cable subscription from
Valgard by itself impoverishes the cable company, even though they had had no subscription from him in the past, and it appears from the facts on hand unlikely he would subscribe in the future. When Valgard hooks up his TV, he immediately enriches himself. But that action does not appear to change anything for the cable company, which was sending the signal the whole time - if that’s impoverishment, it’s self-inflicted.

Here is a brief discussion on impoverishment in Scottish law:

I realize a one could argue that this situation is slightly different since the “impoverished” party is a provider of a service, not a consumer who simply has purchased an abundance of service.

Also, I found that in some countries such as Germany, unjust enrichment need not have impoverishment to be actionable. Even if the other party came out even or ahead through some odd circumstances, the first party can still be liable for unjust enrichment. However, in my amateur view the Scottish example more closely resembles American law as laid out at that NDSU site.

I suspect that that’s your answer. If Valgard uses the service, then the fact that he would not have used the service if it had not been present is (to me) irrelevant.

It’s like the whole IP issue and standard pirate argument. Say that I would not normally buy a game at £29.95. So, logically, if I download it for free from a warez server, the developers and publishers lose nothing as I wouldn’t have bought it anyway. In fact, they may even make money as I might be disposed to purchase future products by them (yeah, right :slight_smile: ).

I think that most people, including most of those that do it, can see that this is wrong (even if they choose to still do it anyway).

The counter argument that in the warez case the person had to actively look for and download the software, whereas in the cable case it’s already there is not valid. You would still have to physically plug the cable and change the channels to watch it, so it’s not like they’re beaming it directly into you head a la Fururama.