On the Legality of Watching Unlicensed TV Streams

By: Monica Rodriguez

According to a September 2014 report by Nielsen, internet streaming has become the obvious choice for a generation on the go—with digital use among persons 18-34 at 16%.[1]  In fact, online video streaming had an increase of close to 60% during the 3rd quarter of 2014 among the same age group.[2]

Nielsen TV streaming Graph

Nielsen, Digital Growth is Fueling an Increase in Media Time.


In a world where demand and efficiency rule entertainment, young adults are moving away from traditional television viewing to digital video.  The Wall Street Journal explained that Americans increased web streaming to about 11 hours a month, up from 7 in 2013 and noted that online consumption is likely even higher, as viewing with devices such as the Roku or smartphones are not included.[3]  Although shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones or even the Super Bowl provide streaming on their own websites, in an effort to shift with the trend, many viewers choose to stream from unlicensed third-party streaming providers, citing that the account subscriptions and targeted commercials are major hindrances to their viewing experience.[4]  With the growing number of people who promote the digital platform, one significant question remains—is watching streamed, unlicensed television content even legal?[5]

Although there are many ways to focus on this issue, the most direct seems to be through an examination of copyright law.  17 USC §102(a) explains that copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship fixed on any tangible medium of expression; in other words, copyright protection applies to original works, like television shows, at the moment it is created.[6]  Exclusive rights with current copyright laws include ability to make copies and control distribution for revenue and profits.  However, there is not necessarily a violation of copyright if a “reproduction manifests itself so fleetingly that it cannot be copied, perceived, or communicated;” in other words, the “dividing line can be drawn between reproductions that exist for a sufficient period of time to be capable of being ‘perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated’ and those that do not.”[7]  Because of all these rights and limitations, the question of the whether watching unlicensed television streams is legal becomes complicated.

The Associated Press v. Meltwater case, in which daily headlines and bits of newspaper stories on Meltwater had links to the full online articles from the Associated Press as well as others, which made unauthorized copyrighted content available to viewers for free, had two different outcomes in the U.S. and U.K.[8]  While the U.S. focused on Meltwater as the host of infringing content, the European courts ruled that “users who see content online, without actually willingly making a copy of it, should not be held accountable for any resulting copyright infringement.”[9]  Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond law school in an article with Business Insider, furthered this concept explaining, “when the user downloads even part of a file—called ‘pseudo-streaming’— it counts as a copy of copyrighted material, which is illegal. And when the user streams content as a ‘public performance’—namely, when it’s shown to a substantial number of people […] it also constitutes a copyright violation.  Outside of these cases, accessing unlicensed streamed content is generally legal.”[10]

On the other hand, the government has been pushing Congress to make online streaming a felony and wants to shift blame to the viewers, declaring, “downloading a copy of the movie ‘Captain America’ illegally is a felony, but if you were to simply stream the same movie illegally it would only be a misdemeanor,’ [Congressman] Nadler [Democrat, New York] said. ‘Does this distinction make sense?”[11] Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower explained the significance of streaming viewers by pointing to the case, in which over 150 million registered users (and 50 million daily visitors) would access reproduced and distributed copies of unauthorized content accounting for as much as 4% of all Internet traffic. [12]  Arguing that viewers also have a role in illegal stream watching, the Department of Justice explained that the amount of bandwidth devoted to copyright-infringing video streaming grew by 470% in a two year span beginning in 2010.[13]

In short, the answer to legality of watching streamed, unlicensed television content is that it remains legal, although likely not for long.  This is true for two main reasons—(1) we must account for technological advances like “pseudo-streaming” which currently serve as violation loopholes in copyright law and (2) Congress is making active steps to uniformly shift liability to viewers for both downloading and viewing unlicensed content.  Despite this legal debate, it is important to note that the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) seldom pursues litigation against individuals who stream these shows as it is difficult to identify the IP address linked to the illegal activity.[14]

[1] Nielson, Shifts in Viewing: The Cross-Platform Report Q2 2014 (2014),

[2] Wall Street Journal, TV Viewing Slips as Streaming Booms, Nielsen Report Shows (2014),

[3] Id.

[4] Christina Sterbenz, How Sketchy Streaming Sites Really Work — And Why Some Are Legal(2014), also Stephanie Rabiner, Illegal Sports Websites Shut Down by Feds Ahead of Super Sunday (2012),

[5] Supra 4.

[6] 17 U.S.C.A. § 102. (West)

[7] U.S. Copyright Office, DMCA Section 104 Report 111 (August 2001); see also 73 Fed. Reg. at 40808.

[8] BGR, Pirating copyrighted content is legal in Europe, if done correctly( 2014), also Gigaom, You can’t break copyright by looking at something online, Europe’s top court rules (2014)

[9] Supra 8.

[10] Christina Sterbenz, How Sketchy Streaming Sites Really Work — And Why Some Are Legal (2014),

[11] The Hill, DOJ To Congress: Make Online Streaming a Felony (2014),

[12] U.S. Department of Justice, Statement of David Bitkower Acting Deputy Assistant Attorney General Criminal Division, Copyright Remedies. ( 2014), available at,

[13] Id.

[14] Stephanie Rabiner, Is Streaming or Watching Movies Illegal? (2012),