To Watch or not to Watch: A Crash Course In Media Streaming Law

media streaming law

Media streaming law: What IS the truth? Do studios using scare tactics? Is it legal to stream movies, provided they’re not downloaded? Are you immediately handed a 3rd class ticket to Clink-ville if a copyright holder catches you pirating a torrent? Is it illegal to share a Amazon Prime password with your 80-year-old Great Aunt Gretchen (who, unbeknownst to her knitting circle, enjoys a little Showtime After Dark, from time to time)? We’ll get to all these questions — and more — below.

Media Streaming Law: Is It Legal To Watch Streaming Media Online?

If you subscribe to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu (to name just a few), you’re golden, because the content provider (e.g., Netflix) uses your membership fees to pay for media licenses.

Media Streaming Law: Is It Illegal To Share Your Netflix / Hulu / Prime Passwords?

A recent ruling had the Internet a-tither:


But…the concern troll tizzy was…overstated.

OK, so here’s the real (practical) deal. Yes, there was a lawsuit that brought password sharing legalities into question. The case, however, had nothing to do with streaming services, but instead centered on a former employee using a colleague’s password to download business data.

You Won’t Be Sued For Sharing Your Netflix Password With A Few Family Members or Friends

Now, of course, rulings have far-reaching consequences; employment case law can absolutely affect streaming legality claims. However, thinking you’ll be sued over a shared family Netflix login is, well, hysterical thinking. explained the situation perfectly:

In July 2016, a panic swept across social media due to widespread claims a “new law” or other legal action made it a felony or a “federal crime” to share one’s Netflix password.

The rumor quickly decoupled from articles about Netflix passwords and the law, with legions of users simply claiming that as of July 2016 the common practice was highly illegal.

By all accounts, the rumors sprang forth from a 5 July 2016 opinion issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco [PDF]. A summary for that opinion quickly revealed that the ruling in question in no way pertained to Netflix; the word “Netflix” appeared nowhere in the 67-page long document.

The decision actually had to do with the use of unauthorized login credentials by former employee to “circumvent … revocation of access,” i.e., someone breached their former employer’s login protocols after having their access revoked upon separation of employment. The opinion had nothing to do with sharing Netflix passwords between siblings or friends.

As is often the case, a brief portion of the summary containing the opinion of a dissenting judge was rapidly seized on by outlets claiming that Netflix password sharing was henceforth a federal crime:

“Dissenting, Judge Reinhardt wrote that this case is about password sharing, and that in his view, the CFAA does not make the millions of people who engage in this ubiquitous, useful, and generally harmless conduct into unwitting federal criminals.”

People who read down to page 23 of the opinion found that the concerns of criminalizing Netflix use were considered in issuing the opinion, and found to be of minor import.

A Los Angeles Times article about the rumors noted that while one judge fretted over future criminalization of password sharing, popular streaming services openly acknowledged the practice and generally viewed it as harmless to their business models.

Media Streaming Law: Is It Illegal To Watch Copyright Protected Movies On YouTube Without Paying?

YouTube is an open platform, and thus, fertile ground for streaming legality issues.

So, what happens if someone uploads a copyrighted movie?

If liability laws are strictly interpreted, yes, being sued for viewing illegal content is, theoretically, possible — the operative word being theoretically. The odds of it happening, though, are about the same as Hillary Clinton voting for Donald Trump (and vice versa). Why? Well, to make the case, a copyright holder would have to get its hands on YouTube’s IP logs, and then convince ISPs to hand over identifying information. Not a quick –nor easy — task. Even if would-be plaintiffs had the resources and won, they’d most likely be Pyrrhic Victories because every possible result permutation involves damages that can’t be collected.

Media Streaming Law: Is It Illegal To Upload Copyright Material To YouTube?

You CAN be punished for uploading copyrighted material to YouTube. Piracy is a crime, and jail awaits the most egregious offenders. But let’s put it this way, you’d also have to be running a multi-million-dollar smuggling ring to, in OZ-parlance, “catch years” for piracy.

However, you can be fined.

Now, are you destined to suffer a stint in the pokey for using an extended Imperial March clip in that DARTH KITTIE video? No. But RSO Records, the copyright owner, may issue a DMCA take down request, which would ultimately result in content removal. You can read more about that process here.

Confession: I illegally downloaded a movie and got caught. I got a letter in the mail saying I have to pay thousands of dollars that I don’t have. What should I do!?

It happened. You illegally downloaded something, and now the copyright holder is sending you letters — scary letters threatening high fines and criminal consequences. What are your options?

Well, let us first say — unequivocally (and as the MPAA now reminds us on every Blue Ray disc) — that “Piracy is Not a Victimless Crime!” No, angels don’t painfully lose their wings every time you download classic episodes of Buffy, but there is a destructive domino effect that hurts not just the “big wigs,” but also set techs and folks who just happen to work in studio offices. Besides, it’s against the law — so you shouldn’t do it.


There are so-called “copyright trolls” — creeping around — who abuse the courts with bogus intellectual property claims. Often, these “trolls” use shoddy methods and manipulative tactics to extort money. In these cases, it’s sometimes possible to get the case thrown out.

To learn more about the anatomy of an illegal downloading case, click here.

Media Streaming Law: Downloading YouTube Content To My Computer: Is It Allowed?

Is it OK to download a YouTube video for offline viewing?

Theoretically, a copyright holder could argue infringement, if alleging distribution. But here’s the crux: although there are programs, like RealPlayer, that allow people to download YouTube videos, YouTube has no way of capturing this data. Without alternative existing proof, a case would likely go nowhere, fast.

Bottom Line: Not Paying For Things That Cost Money Is Against The Law

I Need To Speak With An Attorney About A Streaming Issue

Are you suffering through streaming-related legal issues? Did you get caught downloading something illegally? Maybe you’re a cyber-athlete battling a publisher over a streaming clip. Perhaps someone has infringed upon your video content. Whatever the case, our team is here to help. For ten years, we’ve successfully guided hundreds of people through various streaming and DMCA-related legal issues.