The allure of watching movies online, potentially for free, is, to one degree or another, completely understandable. After all, going to the cinema is expensive. On average today, a single ticket to the movies is over $8, with some regions of the United States noticeably more expensive. Additionally, of course, watching a film online from your computer is potentially much quicker, and more convenient, than piling into the car to go to the local multiplex.
But, of course, given technology such as Google Chrome, content from or on your computer no longer needs to be enjoyed solely on your computer; it can even be cast to your smart television. In this environment, it is perfectly understandable for computer users to look closely into the potential of streaming the movie they’d like to see online rather than make the trip to the cinema. However, in doing so, we must question the legality of doing so; after all, aren’t movie streaming sites illegal? In the following article, we will attempt to evaluate this, and look at above board completely legal movie streaming sites, and, importantly, what makes them so, and some that might be a little more suspect, to finally determine whether movie streaming, as a whole, is legally suspect.
Unquestionably Legal Streaming Sites
Of course, there are many sites out there that are, without question, completely legal to visit, with no repercussions to consuming their content to your heart’s content. Some of these sites, but importantly not all, are subscription services with the requisite (often monthly) fees. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the following:
Crackle – Crackle is owned by Sony, so offers principally their content. The availability here is large, but do be aware each film is only posted for a limited time, so the content is often shifting.
Popcorn Flix – This one hosts a number of independent films. It does not have a subscription structure, and the films are indeed free to view. The website does, however have ads to make up its revenue.
Hulu – Hulu has agreements with many major US networks and studios to stream a large collection of both films and television shows. Hulu is free, while it’s premium version Hulu Plus, which allows access to a wider selection of content, is just under $8 a month.
Netflix – Netflix is, without doubt, the largest online video on demand service, with some 6,500 films available on the US version of its site alone. Netflix is, however, a fee-paying subscription service starting from just under $8 a month, similar to Hulu.
How Do Streaming Sites Acquire Content?
Legal streaming sites, like those listed above, whether or not they charge a fee, can be determined depending on a few key details on the sites themselves. Of course, checking these few details doesn’t necessarily completely rule out the possibility the site is shady, but they certainly increase the site’s change of legitimacy. Firstly, they will indicate, somewhere on the site, where they have aquired their content.
This is most often given on an “About Us” page on the site of some kind. Completely legal sites, particularly is they are free to use, like some listed above, will either have expressed permission from the movie’s production studio to screen the movie, or the film itself will have fallen into the public domain. In the case of the examples given above, Hulu (the non-subscription version) appears to fall into the former case, while another streaming site, Classic Cinema Online, which hosts a large collection of silent and early classic Hollywood films, clearly falls into the latter.
In many cases, as we’ve already noted in the list above, some streaming sites are directly associated with a film’s parent film studio, or the website itself has paid a fee to the studio for the expressed right to stream their films. For example, as we mentioned before, Crackle’s films are provided by Sony Pictures, and Popcornflix are similarly associated with Screen Media Ventures.
In the latter case, when no person, government, organization, or company any longer holds the copyright on a film, it therefore becomes public property, and can be shared, streamed, or even downloaded completely legally. This is particularly the case with many silent films, as their parent companies no longer exist to extend their copyright, while some later films have, through neglect or errors of omission, come into public domain, while other films, of similar age, remain securely, and steadfastly, under their parent company’s trademark and copyright. Another site which specializes in the streaming, or torrenting of public domain materials includes Public Domain Torrents.
Additionally, if a site is legal, it is most likely, aside from an “About Us” likely providing the legal source of their content; they should also provide their own contact information as a legal entity. This could be on the same “About Us” page, or on a separate “Contact Us” page. It is best to look for this in the list of the website’s pages, most often found at the bottom of a given webpage on the site.
Of course, if a site is legal it will also, consequently, be a business and have some form of revenue generating mechanism on the website. If the site is free of a subscription fee, such as Hulu, it is most likely this revenue will come from advertisements. These will likely either take the form of click ads (banners) on the web site itself, or commercials during the content itself, either before the content begins, or interspaced throughout its duration, or, most likely, both.
The last way in which you can determine if an online movie-streaming site is legit is, most often, the films themselves are not brand new. They are instead a few, to several years old. (In the case of public domain films, these are often even older, from the very start of the medium). Key here, is if you find films which have just come out on DVD, or, even worse, are still in the cinema, the site is most likely, if not guaranteed, to be illegal.
So, Are Movie Streaming Sites Illegal?
Setting aside the question of if a given site is operated legally, next we will look at, whether the act of streaming itself illegal. Obviously, as we’ve seen above, streaming and or downloading films its not, as an action, illegal. It all depends on, as we’ve mentioned before, on if the website streams its content legally or not. The problem here is that with torrent files more directly than with streaming, an action is involved. The user chooses the file they would like to have, and they download it; they have chosen to download the torrented file, and therefore have expressed an intention.
The file doesn’t just appear on a website, as is the case with steaming sites, instead the user is specifically seeking it out, and requesting it be downloaded onto their system. Legally speaking, few if any people have ever been prosecuted (thus far) for streaming a film or televsion show onto their personal system. People however have been sued for downloading. In the main, copywright holders and anti-piracy firms are simply uninterested in the end user; it is much more important to them to pursue the sites themselves to try to ensure they stop business entirely. Comparatively, going after individual users is a waste of their time.
Legally speaking then, is it, strictly speaking illegal to stream and view a film? Well, not really. The powers that be will pursue and prosecute the sites, not the individuals viewing them, so the viewer is strictly speaking not in any real danger. This is not to say that it does not remain morally dubious activity. Of course it is; after all, it ultimately affects the studios’ bottom lines, and ultimately, and more importantly, their employees’ job prospects.
This activity, while of course not directly, does help in creating a climate in which film makers, and those who work in its subsidiary industries, could very possibly find themselves out of work due to the public’s reluctance to either go to the cinema, or consume movies in their commercial afterlife, legally. That is to say, it is not technically illegal, if you cannot determine if a given site is legal or not, even after following our advice above, to then watch and potentially enjoy the content of a given site.
So, are movie-streaming sites illegal? Those that have the necessary licences and permissions, of course, are completely legal. Those sites that do not hold such licences, and are posting copywritten and trademarked films without any form of permission, are absolutely illegal. However, while the sites themselves are illegal, the consumption of their content by users and or visitors is not, as no copy of the viewed content remains on the users computer. If it did, as is the case with torrent downloads, this is much more directly illegal, and prosecutable. However, while streaming is not, strictly illegal, it is always best to check any site out you plan to stream from to ensure, as much as is possible, you are not contributing, or benefiting from, someone else’s illegal activity.