When a TV episode or movie isn’t available on Netflix or the budget is tight, many of us think nothing of searching for a free copy to stream from an unofficial site or app.
What harm can it do, right?
While it’s true that prosecution for watching unlicensed streams is low, it’s in fact illegal in many countries.
Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes illegal streaming as a viewer, where is it a crime, and the realities of punishment.
(This is not legal advice).
What is illegal streaming?
Illegal streaming is when you view copyrighted content, such as a TV show or movie, from an unauthorized source over the internet in real-time or on-demand.
The process of streaming includes watching content on streaming websites, apps, IPTV, or other streaming hardware connected to your TV.
However, it doesn’t matter what device you use to access the content online. If the source doesn’t have the legal rights to distribute the content and you play it, it’s considered illegal streaming.
Where there’s an illegal streaming copyright law, watching such streams could technically result in prosecution, including fines or imprisonment.
In some jurisdictions, downloading and keeping the file on your device is the point at which a crime has occurred. Illegal streaming is also distinct from other forms of copyright infringement, such as possessing pirated DVDs.
Where is illegal streaming punishable?
Illegal streaming charges are possible in many jurisdictions that have copyright laws to protect intellectual property.
Some countries consider it a criminal offense, i.e., illegal, and can result in criminal fines. Others view it as a civil matter, and the harshest punishments are non-criminal fines via a lawsuit.
Illegal streaming is a global problem. And copyright laws are generally imposed by the country where the content is consumed, not where it was hosted or where the copyright holder produced the content.
Say you’re in the UK and watching an illegal version of a US movie on a Brazilian website. In this case, you can be prosecuted under the UK’s copyright laws on behalf of the US copyright holder or its UK branch.
Interestingly, while major US copyright holders go to great lengths to protect their content and are the main victims of copyright infringement, it’s not a crime to watch illegal streams in the United States, as per the Copyright Act of 1976, and the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2021 (PLSA).
It is a crime, however, to host streams or otherwise operate an illegal streaming site, or to show a stream to others, e.g., at a bar or public event. The same goes for downloading a full copy from a website or file-sharing platform that you can access offline.
The creator of Jetflicks and iStreamitAll famously received a 57-month prison sentence in 2019 and had to hand over assets worth $1 million.
However, due to a loophole that requires the downloading and storing of a “copy” of the protected work, watching a stream in real-time or even with a buffer (on demand) isn’t illegal in the US. The same applies to Canada and Australia.
Japan is in a similar position, although it’s among the strictest for every other form of copyright infringement, including illegal downloads.
On the other hand, the following countries have made illegal streaming a full criminal offense and can impose fines as well as jail terms:
- United Kingdom – Digital Economy Act 2017.
- Members of the European Union under the European Court of Justice. However, the Netherlands has received criticism for its lack of cooperation on copyright infringement.
- China and Iran have lapse copyright laws but do ban a lot of streaming content for censorship reasons.
This, however, isn’t indicative of the level of enforcement.
Even with such laws in place, most countries have never actually prosecuted an individual for solely viewing a stream.
Fines for illegal streaming by country
In the rare case where there’s prosecution, the most common penalty is a fine.
In the UK, the maximum permitted fine is £50,000 or an unlimited sum if it reaches the Crown Court. However, only £800 fines have actually been issued. And that was a civil matter involving ISP Virgin Media and illegal viewers of the movie Ava.
We’re yet to see viewers of illegal streams tried in the criminal courts.
Despite guidance from the European Court of Justice, local approaches vary greatly among EU member states.
The most well-known illegal streaming arrest is from Italy. More than 200 subscribers to an illicit IPTV service were charged, while many more received fines between €51 and €1,032.
The maximum threat of €25,000 upon prosecution has never been reached.
Can you go to jail for illegal streaming?
Nobody has gone to prison for watching illegal streams, though some jurisdictions have the capacity to impose jail terms. For example, in the UK you can get a maximum of 10 years under the Digital Economy Act. But that’s only if the case reaches the Crown Court.
If the case remains at the lower Magistrates Court, the maximum term is 6 months.
In Italy, the maximum term for subscribing to illegal IPTV is 3 years but there are no records of convictions.
In practice, prison sentences usually revolve around the crime of distribution, not simply watching an illegal football game or movie.
For example, Stephen Millington served 30 months in jail for fraud and copyright offenses, related to software that allowed people to stream premium content for free.
Paul Faulkner got 16 months for operating an illegal IPTV service that focused on Premiere League football games.
In January 2023, UK police in league with pressure group FACT, visited over 1,000 individuals to issue warnings over using modified Firesticks and streaming hardware to watch unlicensed content.
So up to this point, only the operators and distributors of the devices are facing prosecution.
Fines for illegal streaming are steep on paper and certainly surpass what you’d pay for watching content through the proper platforms.
The EU carries the highest fines and has jail terms on the books. However, the UK and Italy, who are leading the charge, have only seen a small number of modest fines and no prison sentences.