Company pays $2,800 to settle for omission of required language from user manual or packaging.

Even if you comply with all the big rules, sometimes the little rules will turn around and bite you.

The FCC has technical rules governing TV receivers. One of them says a TV receiver may not put out radio-frequency emissions that exceed a stated, very low level, just a few billionths of a watt. The FCC-mandated procedure for ascertaining compliance is simplicity itself: the manufacturer or importer tests the product for compliance and keeps certain records – a process the FCC calls “verification.” There is no submission to the FCC, or to anyone else. But a label on the product is required.

As specified by the rules, the label is supposed to say “This device complies with part 15 of the FCC Rules.  Operation is subject to the condition that this device does not cause harmful interference.” The rule has an exception, though. If the device is too small to carry that much text, the same information can go instead in the instruction manual or on the packaging. The FCC routinely extends this exception to any device smaller than the palm of the hand.

Elgato Systems imported and marketed exactly one model of digital TV receiver, of the type that plugs into a computer. So far as we can tell from the record, the product complied with the radio-frequency emission limit. Elgato even kept up the verification-related paperwork. Due to the small size of the device, it was not required to carry the label quoted above. But Elgato did not provide the label text in either the instruction manual or on the packaging.

The published record does not tell us how the FCC became aware of Elgato’s omission. Perhaps a sharp-eyed competitor tipped off the FCC; or perhaps an FCC staffer bought an Elgato tuner for his or her own use and, being an FCC staffer, looked for the label information. However it started, we know how the investigation ended: Elgato signed a consent decree in which it agreed to make a “voluntary contribution” to the U.S. Treasury of $2,800.

Certainly $2,800 is not a lot of money; in fact, it’s one of the lowest voluntary contributions in recent memory. But it still raises a question. We looked through the list of offenses for which the FCC is authorized to impose a forfeiture, and nowhere did we find mention of Elgato’s situation.   On the list is “Importation or marketing of unauthorized equipment,” which carries a base forfeiture of $7,000; but it seems to us that Elgato’s product was duly authorized, via the verification procedure. There is no listed offense of failing to apply a required label, or of failing to include in the instruction manual or on the packaging information that ordinarily has to go on the label unless the device is too small. True, the FCC can impose a forfeiture against any person who “[w]illfully or repeatedly failed to comply” with any FCC rule, but we think this provision identifies potential targets of the enumerated forfeitures, rather than providing for a separate forfeiture on its own.

There are several reasons why Elgato may have wanted to write a small check rather than contest the FCC’s enforcement action. And certainly there are several reasons why the FCC would want to publicly enforce its labeling rules, including the exceptions.

But the best defense against the FCC, rather than questioning enforcement actions after the fact, is not to attract attention in the first place. If you manufacture, import, or market any kind of equipment subject to the FCC rules, you might take Elgato’s misfortune as reminder to check your labeling and instruction manuals against the FCC’s requirements. Either that, or keep your lawyer’s phone number close at hand.