Streaming is not always Legal, Here's what you need to know

Streaming is not always Legal, Here's what you need to know

Thu, May 27, 2021 8:07 PM

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Over a million viewers watched any opening season of their favorite series within 24 hours of its showing. Illegal streaming or download was used by more than 75% of them. For context, that's 54 million people or around three million more than South Korea's population.

Unlicensed streaming statistics are difficult to come by, however, estimates range from 53% of millennials viewing unlawful streams in a month to 78.5 billion visits to piracy sites in 2015.

With a lot of streaming providers joining the fray each month, it's unlikely that we'll see a halt anytime soon.

In reality, 80 percent of all piracy in the United States is due to illegal streaming, according to the report Impacts of Digital Piracy on the US Economy.

Also, Read: Do You Want To Save Money Watching and Streaming? 

The Protecting Lawful Streaming Act 

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 was passed by Congress in December 2020. The Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020 (PLSA) strengthens criminal penalties for people who “willfully and for commercial profit or private financial benefit, illegally broadcast copyrighted material on a big scale.” Illegal streaming was once considered a misdemeanor. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, “under the new statute, the Department of Justice can file felony charges against suppliers (rather than users) of such illicit services.”

According to the international law firm Perkins Cole, “the new law closes a ‘loophole' in criminal copyright law, in which infringing acts of copying or distribution resulted in felony penalties, while infringement public performances (such as streaming) were treated as misdemeanors.”

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What is Illegal Streaming?

We don't recommend watching pirated content under any circumstances because these situations can be highly fact-specific. Our general guideline is that if paying for anything puts money in the hands of those who made it, you should probably pay for it.

It is legal to watch illegal unlicensed movies, TV shows, and sporting events?

The Copyright Act of 1976 is the starting point for any consideration of the legality of streaming in the United States. This gives copyright holders "exclusive rights" to create copies, distribute, and perform their work in public.

And watching a stream does not technically infringe these rights, even if it is done without the permission of the copyright owners. As copyright law has evolved to accommodate the internet, there have been several challenges and interpretations, but this reading has mostly held true.

The new PLSA law "will have little impact on average internet users' activities." It would also not make good faith commercial/licensing disputes or non-commercial actions illegal. Individual internet streamers, for example, cannot be charged with a crime under the PLSA for including unlicensed video in a YouTube or Twitch video. According to the Copyright Alliance, “the usual actions of internet service providers (ISPs) would not be liable to sanctions under the PLSA, even when ISP users/subscribers misuse their services for the purposes of infringement.”

It is always illegal to download unlicensed content.

Although streaming does not violate copyright laws in the United States, downloading does. Every time you download something, you're making a copy of the work, which is an obvious violation if done without the permission of the copyright holder.

The only right to produce copies belongs to the copyright owner. That's why it's referred to as 'copyright'. So if you make a copy that is some sort of permanent version of a work, you may easily be liable, even if you do it in the privacy of your own home.

While there is no disagreement about whether or not downloading unauthorized content is criminal, regular consumers are unlikely to incur legal consequences.

Hosting an unauthorized stream is illegal

While it is lawful to watch an unlicensed broadcast, hosting one is not, and it is much more likely to attract the notice of copyright holders.

Hosting an unlawful stream is a violation of the Copyright Act's distribution section, however, the penalties are just misdemeanors, as opposed to crimes for downloading.

The government has attempted in the past to make penalties for hosting unauthorized streams more comparable to those for downloading. The Senate introduced the Commercial Felony Streaming Act in 2011. Hosting unlawful streams for the aim of “commercial profit or personal financial gain” would have been deemed a felony punishable by up to five years in jail.

The bill drew a lot of criticism from the public, especially from YouTube streamers. Fans of the pop superstar organized a "Free Bieber" campaign, afraid that if the measure passed, the covers of copyrighted songs that established his fame might land him in jail.

That outrage was ultimately enough, and the bill was never voted on. In the United States, hosting an unlicensed stream is still a misdemeanor, albeit civil penalties are more likely in most circumstances.

Copyright enforcement is nearly generally done in a civil, rather than a criminal, manner.

Although there are severe consequences for unauthorized streaming and downloading, you're considerably more likely to be prosecuted by copyright holders than by the government.


You are not legally breaking the law if you are simply watching a stream of unlicensed videos. If you download the movie or show or host a stream yourself, it becomes a criminal. The PLSA law is aimed at the big fish: pirated material streaming businesses. However, just because you have the ability to does not mean you should. You are robbing someone else of their legitimate profits.


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