What are downloading and streaming?
Downloading refers to the practice of downloading and saving a piece of content (eg music, a film, a book or a TV show) onto a device. Downloaded content can be consumed (eg listened to or watched) as and when desired.
Streaming refers to the practice of playing content online to watch immediately. Instead of having to download the entire file before being able to consume it, streaming allows users to start playing content almost immediately as it is being transmitted.
Are downloading and streaming illegal?
Downloads and streams are not inherently illegal. The legality of downloading and streaming depends on the context and the content being downloaded or streamed, as well as the impact of copyright laws and the relevant terms of service.
Generally speaking, content can be downloaded by anyone who has a legal right to do so. For example, if you have purchased a song, movie, ebook or game from a legitimate online store (eg Amazon) or have purchased software from an authorised source (eg Adobe Photoshop from Adobe Inc.) you typically have the right to download this onto your devices.
If you do not have the necessary permissions to download such content (eg because you didn’t buy it), or if the content itself is unlicensed (eg because it is being provided by an unauthorised source, such as a seller who obtained the content illegally), any download would typically be considered illegal. Examples of illegal downloads include downloading movies, TV shows, ebooks, music or software from unauthorised or pirated sources.
Streaming is generally legal when it is done through legitimate and authorised platforms that have obtained the necessary rights to distribute the content (eg Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon Prime). This often involves using paid subscription services or platforms that offer content with the permission of the relevant copyright holders.
Streaming copyrighted content without proper authorisation (eg using unauthorised streaming websites or services that distribute copyrighted material without permission) is illegal.
What are the consequences of illegal downloading and streaming?
Some copyrights can be worth millions; around £63 billion of the UK’s annual business investment in knowledge assets is estimated to be protected by intellectual property (IP) rights. This is one of the reasons why companies in the media industry take illegal downloading and streaming very seriously. However, lawsuits, fines and even imprisonment aren’t the only potential consequences of illegal downloads or streams, with illegal streams and downloads posing risks to users as well.
The main consequences of illegal downloads and streams include:
Being subject to civil legal action
Downloading content without paying for it or without the consent of the copyright owner is not a criminal offence. It’s a civil matter (ie a matter to be resolved between private parties, such as a business and an individual, rather than via prosecution by the state). Downloading or streaming content that doesn’t belong to you without permission often constitutes infringing someone’s copyright. It’s up to the copyright owner to bring a claim for copyright infringement against whoever downloaded their content.
The starting point then is ‘who owns the copyright?’. A copyright is an IP right that typically belongs to the party who created the content. If we take Game of Thrones as an example, George R.R. Martin (the author of the fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire) owns the copyright in the books he wrote, including all of the characters, the locations and everything to do with the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. HBO then bought the television rights for the series to create their show, Game of Thrones, and they hold the copyright in the TV show.
For more information, read Copyright.
Committing a criminal offence
Downloading can be a criminal offence if the downloader makes copies or shares the files for the purpose of selling and making a commercial gain. The criminal penalties can vary, according to the severity, but can range from £5,000 and/or 3 months’ imprisonment to an unlimited fine and/or 10 years’ imprisonment. For more detailed guidance, see the government’s guidance on intellectual property offences.
Being exposed to malware, viruses, ransomware, scams and/or fraud
Streaming or downloading your favourite shows and movies for free can be tempting, but indulging can come at a cost. When you illegally download or stream digital content on a distrustful website, it can mean exposing yourself to:
malware that could access your personal information, browsing data or credit card information
viruses that may damage or destroy your files and device
ransomware that denies you access to your device until a ransom is paid
scams and fraud, which can result in your losing large amounts of money
As a result, using illegal downloading and streaming sites can leave you vulnerable to scammers and hackers looking for their next victim.
Why is it difficult to stop illegal downloading or streaming?
Regulating the internet has always been controversial and nearly impossible. The internet is predominantly user-powered and, therefore, there are conflicting opinions on whether governments should be intervening and dictating the population’s digital freedom.
‘Torrenting’ is also a huge problem for the media industry. Torrenting is a form of peer-to-peer file sharing where pieces of files (such as music, games and films) are split between users, and, once all the pieces are downloaded, they form the whole piece of content. The Pirate Bay and BitTorrent are common platforms used to share pieces of files between users. The content shared on these sites is inherently difficult to control because there is no central database or system. This is likely to be one of the reasons why The Pirate Bay and BitTorrent are still going strong.