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From Napster to BitTorrent to 123Movies, watching pirated content online has been around almost as long as the internet itself.
At its peak, 123Movies saw 98 million visitors every month from around the world — more than Etsy, CNN and The New York Times. While the original site was shut down by Vietnamese authorities in 2018, copyright enforcement in the digital era is always a game of whack-a-mole.
Shuttered sites often simply redirect their users to new file-sharing sites, keeping investigators one step behind. Just months after the original 123Movies was shut down, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) noted at least a dozen copycat sites that had popped up in its absence.
But is it illegal to use 123Movies? If you’re just streaming, it’s not technically illegal. But if you download or share anything yourself — as many free streaming sites require — you could face criminal or civil charges.
Of course, this shouldn’t be taken as legal advice. The four copyright lawyers we spoke with all emphasized that the legality of each situation depends on a number of factors, and we don’t think you should watch pirated content even if it’s not technically breaking any laws.
Watching a stream on 123Movies is technically not against the law in the U.S.
There is a lot of legal gray area, but all of the copyright lawyers we spoke with told us that it’s not illegal to simply watch pirated movies and shows. The Copyright Act of 1976 gives content creators the “exclusive rights” to make copies of their work, perform it and distribute it.
There have been a number of challenges in the years since, but that interpretation has held true: The person who’s simply watching the unlicensed content is not breaking the law.
“The platform that’s providing it and any user who originally put the unlicensed content up there are probably liable,” said Jim Gibson, a law professor and founder of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Keep in mind, sites that only stream unlicensed content are a relatively new phenomenon, and many users who download the same content have been pursued criminally and civilly in the past. But so far, streaming appears to be legal — at least for now.
“I don’t know of any criminal case that’s been brought against somebody for streaming,” Nicole Haff, partner and head of litigation at Romano Law PLLC, a firm that specializes in business, media, sports and entertainment law, told us. “I’ve just never heard of that.”
Downloading and peer-to-peer streaming of unlicensed content is illegal
While streaming still has some gray area in the law, downloading does not. It is explicitly illegal in the United. States, and it’s been prosecuted both criminally and civilly many times.
“The U.S. Copyright Act permits copyright owners certain exclusive rights. Streaming and downloading hit on two different categories of these rights,” Haff said. Downloading content violates a copyright holder’s exclusive rights to make copies — that’s why it’s called a “copyright.” Because streaming never actually reproduces the work, it’s technically not infringing on the copyright.
Peer-to-peer streaming sites like BitTorrent Live also violate copyright law when they stream unlicensed content. This technology relies on users to share the content as they watch.
“If you’re a user, you are both receiving the content and you’re putting the content out there,” Haff said. “And I know there are cases of the owners going after BitTorrent users.”
“You’re both downloading and uploading content at the same time,” Haff said. “You’re making copies, you’re distributing it to others. You’re not just passively looking at a video.”
How likely is it that you’ll face legal consequences?
It’s unlikely that you’ll face criminal or civil charges for simply watching pirated content. “In terms of people just consuming, I think it would be unusual,” said Haff. “At the end of the day, the people who are viewing this are potential consumers. So you really want to shut down the entity that is taking money out of your pocket.”
I would think it would be extraordinarily unusual for a U.S. attorney to pursue Joe Everyman for watching a video.
Both copyright holders and prosecutors would rather go after the bigger fish like 123Movies. There are only around 100 criminal copyright prosecutions each year, and they tend to be against the very largest sites.
But there is one group that has been targeted legally: users of peer-to-peer networks. There were over 3,000 copyright infringement lawsuits filed against BitTorrent users in 2018 alone, and the courts are still working through their validity. These prosecutions are still relatively rare for average users, but this type of downloading clearly presents a greater risk.
Malware is still common on these sites
You probably won’t face legal consequences for using sites like 123Movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe to use. A 2015 report from the non-profit Digital Citizens Alliance found that one out of every three illegal streaming sites exposed users to malware. And just visiting them is often enough — 45% of malware was delivered by “drive-by downloads” that don’t require users to click a link on the site.
If you download one of these illegal pirate apps or add-ons, the chances are good that you’ll also download malware.
Malware is also common in apps you can download straight to your streaming device, and which provide access to pirated movies and shows. Once the software is in your wireless network, it can potentially access information like credit card numbers and sensitive login credentials.
The best legal alternatives to 123Movies
In 2020, there are a number of free streaming services available that don’t expose you to malware or require you to break the law. These are some of our favorites:
- Locast – Perhaps the best value of any service on this list, Locast allows you to stream all your local channels entirely for free. That means you can watch most NFL games, the local news and every major awards show without going through a sketchy pirate site.
- Hoopla – The all-around best free streaming service, Hoopla requires a library card to use, but you’ll get access to a library of shows and movies that’s better than most paid streaming services.
- Kanopy – Kanopy also requires a library card to use, but it has one of the best selections of movies of any service — free or paid. In fact, it has more movies in IMDb’s top 250 list than Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu.
- Pluto TV – If you want to watch live TV without a TV subscription, Pluto gets you over a hundred channels focused on news, sports and entertainment. You can also watch thousands of Pluto’s shows and movies anytime on-demand.
- Tubi – With more than 19K movies and shows in its library, Tubi gives users plenty of options. It specializes in action and horror movies, but you can also find a number of classic TV shows from yesteryear.
- Roku Channel – You can only watch it on Roku streaming devices and web browsers, but the Roku Channel has an awesome collection of classic ‘90s movies to dive into.
- IMDb TV – With just over 340 movies, IMDb TV’s library is smaller than most free streaming services, but they’re almost all movies you’ve heard of. It also has the entire series of shows like Mad Men, Lost and Schitt’s Creek streaming for free.
Before you go to a site like 123Movies to stream something for free, it’s worth checking these places first. To see where something is streaming, use a streaming search engine like JustWatch.com, which will show you all your legal options for watching.
The bottom line
In most cases, streaming pirated content isn’t technically breaking the law. But that doesn’t mean you should do it. Aside from serious malware concerns, it’s also worthwhile to pay for the movies and TV shows you enjoy.
“My general rule of thumb for my own personal action is, if I think there’s a way to access the content that will actually lead to money in the pockets of those who created it, then I should be willing to pay, even if I could get it for free,” Gibson told us.
It’s an awfully similar message to the one that 123Movies posted on its last days as a live website. “Please pay for the movies/shows,” it read. “That’s what we should do to show our respect to people behind the movies/shows.”
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Written by:Joe Supan
Senior Writer, Wireless & Streaming Content
Joe oversees all things wireless and streaming for Allconnect. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users navigate these complex spaces. These in… Read more
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