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Is Streaming or Watching Movies Illegal?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

Online streaming is gaining in popularity, and for some, it's replaced illegal (and legal) downloading altogether. The entertainment industry is undoubtedly annoyed, having tried so hard to kill Napster and BitTorrent sharing. But will it be able to do the same to online streaming?

The answer to this question hinges on whether or not streaming songs -- and streaming movies -- is illegal for both the viewer and the poster. And as explained below, current law is a bit of a mixed bag.

Is watching streaming movies illegal?

There is currently no definitive answer to this question. Depending on the site and file type, online streaming may create a full-length temporary copy of the movie on your computer. Alternatively, the program may delete the data as you watch.

Some courts have held that even temporary copies may violate the law. However, the Copyright Office contends there is no violation when "a reproduction manifests itself so fleetingly that it cannot be copied, perceived or communicated."

Though the law is unclear, it is useful to note that owners, such as the MPAA, rarely go after individuals who watch streaming movies. Illegal or not, it's much more difficult to track these users down. Unlike BitTorrent downloads, the MPAA can't just sign into a program and snag IP addresses.

Is posting streaming movies illegal?

If you upload a movie and stream it without permission, you're probably breaking the law. You're hosting an unauthorized public performance of the film, which violates the owner's rights. If you make money off of the streaming, the owner can go after you for damages and profits.

Prosecutors can go after you, too. It's a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and up to 1 year in jail, to "publicly perform" a copyrighted work without permission. This, however, is unlikely to happen unless you're running a large streaming site. Prosecutors don't generally have time to go after a single incident.

Thus far, none of the above has stopped the entertainment industry from trying to make all unauthorized streaming of movies illegal. Just last year, Congress considered a bill to elevate the public performance crime to a felony. But after the SOPA backlash, that legislation is still pending.

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