Photo/IllutrationLawyers for the defendant sued by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) for failing to pay subscription fees hold a news conference on Dec. 6 after the Supreme Court ruled against their client. (Kazuhiro Nagashima)

While the Supreme Court backed Japan Broadcasting Corp.'s (NHK) subscription payment system, it did not give carte blanche to the public broadcaster to aggressively collect the fees.

The top court on Dec. 6 ruled as constitutional the provision of the Broadcast Law that NHK has argued effectively obligates TV owners to pay the monthly subscription fee.

The ruling will have a major impact on the approximately 10 million households and companies around Japan that have not signed subscription contracts with NHK even though they possess TV sets.

In its verdict, the Supreme Court explained that NHK's subscription payment system supported its freedom of expression as an entity financially independent of any government institution, corporate sponsor or individual.

At the same time, the court rejected NHK's argument that a subscription contract was established the moment it asked a viewer to sign such an agreement.

Rather, the Supreme Court said NHK would have to file lawsuits seeking a substantiation of subscription contracts by viewers and that such a contract would only be established when a court ruling in NHK's favor was finalized.

In such future lawsuits, the Dec. 6 verdict will likely be used as an important precedent, meaning that NHK would have a much easier time winning such court actions.

In another provision that could have major repercussions, the Supreme Court said once a contract was established, the defendant would have to pay subscription fees retroactively from when the TV set was installed.

That was one factor that sparked outrage among the defendant in the case before the Supreme Court as well as his lawyers.

The lawyers said the ruling was a total victory for NHK and raised concerns about possible retroactive payments.

"If a TV set was installed from around 1965, the individual would have to pay back fees for about 50 years," said Yukihiro Ozaki, one of the lawyers for the defendant. "The ruling is contemptible because the Supreme Court made such a verdict while believing that even NHK would never file a lawsuit seeking such back fees."

The lawyers for the defendant had argued before the Supreme Court that he was only obligated to pay retroactively from when the contract was established after a court verdict in favor of NHK was finalized, or, in other words, from Dec. 6.

However, the Supreme Court said there was a need for back fees to be paid because not doing so would lead to unfairness between defendants and those who have been paying subscription fees after installing a TV set at the same time as the defendant.

Hidemi Suzuki, a professor of constitutional law at Keio University, said the ruling took into account the positions of both NHK and viewers because while it said NHK's argument about the obligation for subscription fees was constitutional, it added that the subscription contract was not established unless individuals with TV sets who refuse to enter into the contract are taken to court.

Meanwhile, Yoshihiro Oto, a professor of journalism at Sophia University, said the ruling could not be considered a groundbreaking verdict.

"Still, it is important because it states that it is desirable if the subscription contract was entered into after NHK made efforts to obtain the understanding of viewers," he said.