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Wilbert Shaw may have been clever and greedy, using a descrambler chip to get free pay-per-view movies from his cable TV company, St. Louis-based Charter Communications. But Charter turned out to be a bit cleverer — and a whole lot greedier — when it made a federal case of it. Shaw was a cable subscriber through Charter between October 1999 and October 2000. Near the end of that period, Charter went on the offensive against people who had installed a descrambling chip to get pay-per-view shows without paying. Its countermeasure identified Shaw’s converter box as altered, and disabled it. After Charter’s defensive maneuver, Shaw returned his rented cable box, which showed it had been used with the chip theft device. In its suit for damages under federal communications law, Charter estimated it had a projected loss of revenue of $16,901.85 for the year Shaw “siphoned” premium programming. Based on that estimated loss, Charter sought the maximum $10,000 penalty and $2,465 in attorneys’ fees. QUALITY OF MERCY When Shaw failed to defend and defaulted, he basically threw himself on the mercy of the court. The case was handled by federal Judge Janet B. Arterton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, who picked up a sharp pencil and punctured the cable company’s overblown notion of its loss. Charter figured that Shaw watched 300 movies, 30 adult programs and three special events every month of the year. “If Charter’s ‘estimate’ is right,” Arterton wrote, “Shaw has likely accomplished the much-sought-after task of finding more than 24 hours in a single day: Watching 10 movies each day would exhaust close to 20 hours, and he would still have to find time for 30 adult programs (shown only after 10 p.m.) and three ‘special events’ per month.” What really made Shaw’s alleged feat incomparable was the notion that he would be watching the same 10 movies 30 times each per month, “because there simply are not that many new pay-per-view movies shown each month,” Arterton noted. NO RAVING VIDIOT Arterton noticed that Shaw had paid for a special program on Aug. 15, just 10 weeks before returning the box to Charter. Because Shaw would have no incentive to pay for a show he could unscramble for free, Arterton reasoned that he might have had the chip in use for just 10 weeks, and was probably not the “compulsive television addict” painted in Charter’s court papers. Instead of socking the undefended Shaw with a $10,000 fine, the judge awarded a $1,500 payment, taking into account the fact that he’d returned the cable box and could use it no more. Shaw didn’t have a lawyer defending him, but it didn’t keep him from paying legal fees. Charter’s lawyer, Burton B. Cohen, of the New Haven, Conn., offices of Murtha, Cullina, Richter & Pinney submitted a bill for $2,465 that the judge found reasonable as to hourly rate and time spent, bringing the overall award to $3,965.

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