Is Online Streaming Illegal?

2020 is shaping up to be the year of being stuck inside. You've probably gotten bored with all your favorite movies, shows, games, music... and now you're looking for a way to get something new. Having the internet puts a world of content at your fingertips, but you might be wondering is it all legal?

We researched some of the most popular ways to watch content and the laws that apply to them. Note: we are not lawyers and this should not be considered legal advice. If you are concerned, speak to a professional.

Is Streaming Movies Online Illegal?

Not likely.

Without getting too in the weeds about copyright law, as long as you don't record or create a permanent copy of the content, then streaming unauthorized content won't create any liability for you.

The one major caveat to this is that it is always illegal to watch illegal content.

Is Running A Stream Of Unauthorized Content Illegal?


While it might not be illegal to view a stream of unauthorized content, it certainly is illegal to stream unauthorized content. This isn't just broadcasting a movie; it could be as simple as having copyrighted music playing in the background while you show off your dance moves on TikTok (I've heard that is a thing?).

Is Downloading Movies Illegal

It depends. If the platform has the rights to the content and they offer a temporary download, then it is legal. A good example is that Netflix will allow you to download a movie for a limited time to enable offline use. This is totally fine.

Now, if you are downloading movies from a peer-to-peer network, then it is definitely illegal.

Think about the word copyright. It literally means the right to make copies. The artist or studio that produced the content will likely be the holder of the copyright, meaning they are the only ones authorized to make copies. When you download a movie or a song, you are making a copy of that property (i.e. you're violating the copyright and the law).

That's why when you watch a movie, you see a warning from the FBI informing you of the possible penalties of copyright infringement.

What Happens If I Get Caught Downloading Pirated Content?

Copyright infringement is punishable in several ways:

  1. You pay the dollar amount equal to the damages caused.
  2. You pay an amount between $200 and $150,000 for each file.
  3. You are issued an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
  4. You can go to jail for up to five years.

While the above list is terrifying, the reality is that most copyright issues are resolved in civil court(meaning you'll pay a fine) and not criminally. Further, most people receive a warning to stop before anything more serious occurs.

That said, there are some famous cases where people have faced massive consequences for what probably seemed harmless at the time; like the story of Jammie Thomas-Rasset.

Jammie was a single mother of four and downloaded 24 songs from a popular peer-to-peer sharing platform. Like most of these platforms, the file-sharing feature was turned on by default, meaning she was distributing these copyrighted songs she had just downloaded.

She was caught, taken to court, and ultimately fined $80,000 per song. That brought her total fine to $1,920,000.

Myths About Pirating Content

Growing up during the Napster era, I heard them all. These are common excuses people use to say that downloading content is actually legal. They are wrong, so don't bank on these to keep you out of the courtroom.

Myth 1: I own a copy of the movie/song/game, so it's legal.
Myth 2: I'm not distributing it for money, so it's legal.
Myth 3: It's okay to share content if I legally bought it.
Myth 4: Only people who have downloaded more than 1,000 songs get caught.

Beware Of Viruses

If the list of legal ramifications weren't enough to keep you from downloading illegal content, then the risk you expose to yourself should be. One study found that a third of illegal streaming sites exposed users to malware and that these sites make around $70 million a year that way. Another study found a similar result; 33% of people who visited a piracy site had malware on their computers.