Is it Illegal to Watch Unauthorized Television Streams Online?

February 21, 2021

If you’ve ever found yourself scouring the internet for an authorized place to watch your favorite movie, show, or sports team, you’ve probably encountered some hardships. Whether that difficulty is due to a lack of subscription to a stream provider or a blackout in your area, this can leave you with a disappointing feeling as you’re left to watch something less desirable.

But, if you decide that no is not an acceptable answer, you may have found yourself in a less-than-official looking website which lets you watch what you want – if this is you, you are not alone as unauthorized streams are accessed over 200 billion times annually. Naturally, this seems like it must be too good to be true as other sources stated access was unavailable or would come at a cost. Thus, a conclusion could be made, and a reasonable one at that, that the website must be illegal and that your viewing is breaking the law.

You are free to stream at your own risk, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Well, I’m here to let you know that that conclusion is true…somewhat. The Copyright Act of 1976 grants copyright holders’ exclusive rights to distribute their work, but it only applies to public performances. That being said, there is a stark difference between watching a stream by yourself and hosting a party using one of these unauthorized streams – the watch party could be considered a public performance and thus creating criminal liability while the private viewing has never been held to be a public performance. Furthermore, the Act distinguishes between simple the streaming of content and the actual downloading of the same content – streaming privately is not a violation but any downloading of the content most certainly is insofar as that is the creation of a copy. The Act further explains that copying and distributing these steams is a criminal violation, but again, the courts have held that simple private viewing of the stream does not constitute the creation of a copy and is thus not a violation.

So, in total, those who host the illegal streams are most certainly in violation of copyright laws and can be prosecuted, but it’s highly unlikely a simple stream viewer will be found liable, but it’s certainly not impossible. You may be thinking to yourself that this all sounds great, what’s the catch? Well, there are a few catches. Firstly, these streaming sites are prime “feeding” grounds for hackers looking to steal your data or login credentials. Secondly, the owner of the copyright could sue you personally under Section 553 which prohibits persons from intercepting or receiving “any communications service offered over a cable system, unless specifically authorized to do so.” In 2014, the <a href="http://<!– wp:paragraph –> <p>So, in total, those who host the illegal streams are most certainly in violation of copyright laws and can be prosecuted, but it’s highly unlikely a simple stream viewer will be found liable, but it’s certainly not impossible. So, you may be thinking to yourself that this all sounds great, what’s the catch? Well, there are a few catches. Firstly, these streaming sites are prime “feeding” grounds for hackers looking to steal your data or login credentials. Secondly, the owner of the copyright could sue you personally under Section 553 which prohibits persons from intercepting or receiving “any communications service offered over a cable system, unless specifically authorized to do so.” In 2014, the UFC successfully sued one person for $12,000 who viewed a pay-per view stream on one of these unauthorized streaming websites. (<a href="https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2014/2/11/5402548/ufc-won-steaming-lawsuit-individual">https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2014/2/11/5402548/ufc-won-steaming-lawsuit-individual</a>.)  Lastly, you run a huge risk of having both very strange ads appear on your computer as well as the potential that viruses could be downloaded on your computer. So, in summary, if you privately watch a stream, as of now there would be no criminal charges that could be brought upon you. Where you get in trouble criminally is when you download the content or play it in public. Aside from criminal prosecution is the civil side of unauthorized streaming where the copyright holder could very well sue you and hold you liable to pay a hefty fine. Another thing to look out for is a new bill has been introduced to Legislation (by North Carolina’s very own Thom Tillis) called the “Protect Lawful Streaming Act” which targets these illegal streams, but it focuses on the commercial, for-profit streaming piracy services. If this bill were to be passed, its violation is a felony that could come with a hefty fine or prison sentence – but again, this doesn’t cover the private viewers of streams.</p> <!– /wp:paragraph –>" data-type="URL" data-id="<!– wp:paragraph –> <p>So, in total, those who host the illegal streams are most certainly in violation of copyright laws and can be prosecuted, but it’s highly unlikely a simple stream viewer will be found liable, but it’s certainly not impossible. So, you may be thinking to yourself that this all sounds great, what’s the catch? Well, there are a few catches. Firstly, these streaming sites are prime “feeding” grounds for hackers looking to steal your data or login credentials. Secondly, the owner of the copyright could sue you personally under Section 553 which prohibits persons from intercepting or receiving “any communications service offered over a cable system, unless specifically authorized to do so.” In 2014, the UFC successfully sued one person for $12,000 who viewed a pay-per view stream on one of these unauthorized streaming websites. (<a href="https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2014/2/11/5402548/ufc-won-steaming-lawsuit-individual">https://www.bloodyelbow.com/2014/2/11/5402548/ufc-won-steaming-lawsuit-individual</a>.)  Lastly, you run a huge risk of having both very strange ads appear on your computer as well as the potential that viruses could be downloaded on your computer. So, in summary, if you privately watch a stream, as of now there would be no criminal charges that could be brought upon you. Where you get in trouble criminally is when you download the content or play it in public. Aside from criminal prosecution is the civil side of unauthorized streaming where the copyright holder could very well sue you and hold you liable to pay a hefty fine. Another thing to look out for is a new bill has been introduced to Legislation (by North Carolina’s very own Thom Tillis) called the “Protect Lawful Streaming Act” which targets these illegal streams, but it focuses on the commercial, for-profit streaming piracy services. If this bill were to be passed, its violation is a felony that could come with a hefty fine or prison sentence – but again, this doesn’t cover the private viewers of streams.</p> UFC successfully sued one person for $12,000 who viewed a pay-per view stream on one of these unauthorized streaming websites. Lastly, you run a huge risk of having both very strange ads appear on your computer as well as the potential that viruses could be downloaded on your computer. In summary, if you privately watch a stream, as of now there would be no criminal charges that could be brought upon you. Where you get in trouble criminally is when you download the content or play it in public. Aside from criminal prosecution is the civil side of unauthorized streaming where the copyright holder could very well sue you and hold you liable to pay a hefty fine. Another thing to look out for is a new bill has been introduced to Legislation (by North Carolina’s very own Thom Tillis) called the “Protect Lawful Streaming Act” which targets these illegal streams, but it focuses on the commercial, for-profit streaming piracy services. If this bill were to be passed, its violation is a felony that could come with a hefty fine or prison sentence – but again, this doesn’t cover the private viewers of streams.

If the potential legal claims that could be brought against you are not enough to deter you from watching unauthorized streams, perhaps ethical reasons will appeal to you. Every year, the U.S. economy loses at least $30 billion dollars annually in revenue because of unauthorized sharing of their content. Furthermore, watching these streams is more or less theft which, I would assume most of us, are against. All in all, you are free to stream at your own risk, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Tage Rustgi

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