Online streaming websites have mushroomed in recent years. People increasingly prefer to watch movies online in the comfort of their homes, rather than go to a theater.
While some popular movie streaming options like Prime Video, are perfectly legal, most streaming websites fall into a legally murky arena.
Everyone has been to one of those sites that let anyone stream a movie without paying a cent. If it sounds too good to be true, it sort of is. Is it actually legal to watch movies online without purchasing it beforehand?
The question is not an easy one to answer right away, but this article will attempt to address the question in the most comprehensive manner possible.
Copyright Law and Intellectual Property
Movies are, technically, protected by copyright law. If you are a nineties kid, you will remember the bright green or ominous red FBI warnings that played before the movie on VHS tapes.
Intellectual property law deems that it’s illegal to distribute a movie for profit without due permission of the copyright holder. Nowadays, people are less likely to nick VHS tapes than to share files online.
This is where the legal lines blur. Whether you are committing a crime will depend on whether you are streaming, downloading or uploading a movie online.
You may have heard of infamous cases where regular people were prosecuted for sharing or streaming movies or music online. There were infamous cases like the one targeting Napster in the nineties.
But don’t panic just yet. The authorities prosecute people only for distributing movies without permission online. If you download from or upload a movie to a streaming website, then you are committing a crime.
If you share illegal movies online in return for a profit, then your actions will definitely fall into the criminal category.
However, streaming movies is an entirely different activity. You are not distributing anything. You are not sharing files with peers for profit or otherwise.
You are just watching a movie that someone else has uploaded. You are not paying for possibly criminally acquired intellectual property material.
You have no way of knowing how the movie got there. These facts make it quite hard for the authorities to prosecute you.
The law, by far, is still unclear when it comes to streaming free movies online, or for visiting possibly illegal movie websites. When you stream a movie, your computer makes a temporary copy of the file on your computer.
So technically, you are briefly in possession of a possibly illegal copyright material. But for the time being, the law does not consider this a violation.
This is good news for streamers. The authorities are not likely to come after you for wanting to stream Star Wars.
Streaming Vs. Downloading
Remember a while back the U.S. government wanted to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act? The law was so controversial, the government eventually shelved it.
That’s why the law regarding online streaming is still foggy. But, keep in mind that there is a clear difference between streaming and downloading.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is not going to come after you for streaming a movie online. However, if you download an illegally uploaded copy, you could face prosecution.
If you upload a ripped copy without permission, you can be criminally charged. Technically, streaming is temporarily downloading a file.
The authorities and MPAA don’t really go after individual streamers. They tend to go after file sharing sites like BitTorrent and KickAss Torrents where people actually upload illegal copies of movies.
If you upload or download torrents, then you would be committing a copyright violation. But if you stream one of these uploaded torrents, you are not as liable.
Think of it as borrowing a movie. If a friend lends you a DVD and you watch it, there’s nothing illegal about it. Even if the friend has stolen the movie DVD from someone else, you will not be responsible for their actions.
However, if you participate in the theft, then, of course, you will be an accomplice. That’s the difference between streaming and downloading movies.
If you stream a movie, you are just borrowing it. But if you upload or download, you are taking part in a crime.
The law can be quite harsh for those who upload or download movies online. You could be charged on grounds of “unauthorized public performance of the film,” which current intellectual property law clearly says violates the rights of the copyright holder.
If you upload a movie and stream it for a profit, the owner of the copyright can sue you for financial damages. Prosecutors can sue you too and possibly fine you or even jail you up to a year. This is the usual case for people who run massive streaming websites and make money from them.
When you are watching movies online, be aware of so called copyright trolling. Some websites upload videos and expect certain unsuspecting people to download some of these files. This is piracy. Then the website sues these online pirates for damages.
There’s also an important distinction to be made between movies and music. You know those stories where regular people were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for sharing files online? Those are music files.
The Recording Industry Association of America is quite merciless when it comes to suing alleged copyright violators. Music streaming outside legal websites, downloading and sharing online can get you in serious trouble.
In addition to international copyright law, local laws in your country may affect whether you can stream movies online or not.
However, if you stream a movie censored in your country, you could face punishment under local censorship laws.
You may face blasphemy or similar charges if you stream sexually explicit movies banned by the regulators in your country.
If you live outside the U.S., you should contact a local lawyer to find out how online streaming is viewed by your jurisdiction.
Free and Perfectly Legal Ways to Stream Movies
Streaming movies online are not exactly illegal, so some people may be uncomfortable doing it. If this is the case with you, don’t worry; there are plenty of ways to watch legal free movies online.
You don’t have to fear prosecution if you try the following:
You can watch a handful of movies in full length on YouTube for free. It’s perfectly legal. Most of the available titles are largely unknown or are really old.
If you want to know if a movie you want is available, search it on YouTube with “full length” in the query. You can also browse titles on this Reddit thread dedicated to full movies on YouTube.
Amazon Prime Video
This is a great place to purchase movies and stream them online on your computer, a smartphone or a tablet. Some Amazon videos can be watched for free in full or in part.
Amazon usually makes pilots for original TV shows free on the site. You can purchase plenty of movies for reduced prices if you are an Amazon Prime member.
Hulu is definitely one of the most popular sites to stream movies and TV shows online for free. You can watch even recent releases within a week or so with an account.
If you have a paid account, you can watch new releases without the wait. The only issue is that Hulu censors content based on geographic location. If you are located outside the U.S., some movies may not be available to you.
Can I Stream It
This site allows users to search if a movie they are looking for is available for streaming on a legitimate website like YouTube or Hulu.
If not, it shows results where you can purchase or borrow the movie at an affordable cost. It’s a neat site for movie buffs. You can just type in the titles you want and you may be able to find a legitimate streaming link.
One watch movies online free legal method is to borrow a digital copy from your local library. That’s right; along with e-books, you can actually borrow digital movies to stream on your computer.
If your library has access to OverDrive, you can stream the movies on a handheld device as well. This is just like borrowing a DVD from the library, except that you don’t actually have to visit the library.
Indie Flix is basically Netflix for indie movies. You can stream both long and short indie movies on this site, and some are shown for absolutely free. If you are bored, this is a great site to visit and browse hundreds of titles.
You should certainly consider the above options if you want to take the “safe” approach to streaming movies. Just remember, it’s mostly okay to stream movies online, as long as you are not downloading, uploading or sharing a file.
Does this make streaming illegal content punishable under criminal law? Not exactly. You could be fined or face another penalty only if the owner of copyright decides to sue you.
It means that if you stream Star Wars from a pirated file, you would only face a penalty if Disney goes to the trouble of suing you. Additionally, the EU ruling may not necessarily apply in your local jurisdiction.