Why the legal ‘grey area’ of internet piracy is a myth, and what it could cost you

5 February marks Safer Internet Day. All week on Yahoo Movies UK we’re going to be exploring the murky world of online piracy, how it affects the film industry and you.

“If other people are doing it, why shouldn’t I?”

It’s a common refrain when it comes to pirating online content from torrent sites, watching movies recorded illicitly in a cinema or accessing material via set-top boxes and sticks loaded with illegal add-ons and apps.

It’s also not a very good argument – after all, only around a third of people are doing it and just because someone is doing something that could get them in trouble or open themselves up to risks, does that mean you should too?

But what people are particularly wrong about here is how there’s a legal grey area around internet piracy, that it’s frowned upon, but actually okay. That’s simply not true.

“Most people illegally downloading online would never even think about not paying for a physical product or service, so the same attitude should be applied to intellectual property,” says Ilona Smyth, a lawyer at Beggars Music Group.

Initially, Smyth suggests, “the law was never introduced to take into account streaming, downloading and sharing content on the internet”. But now the legal rules have started to catch up with the technology.

“In April 2017, the EU Court of Justice ruled that using a device to stream copyrighted content without the right permissions or subscriptions is breaking the law,” says Kieron Sharp from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). “Therefore consumers need to be aware that streaming films in this way is very much illegal, as is downloading and distributing them.”

In other words, as Internet Matters – a non-profit aimed at empowering parents and carers about web use – explains, “the viewer, the person sharing the [unauthorised] stream and anyone providing links to it are all breaking the law.” Not only that, but if you buy a streaming device pre-loaded with apps that allow you to stream content you should be paying for separately, that’s also illegal. Recently, a man was hit with an £85,000 demand after he shared a stream of a pay-per-view boxing match to more than 4,250 people on Facebook.

FILE – This May 2, 2015 file photo shows Manny Pacquiao from the Philippines, left, trading punches with Floyd Mayweather Jr., during their welterweight title fight in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE – This May 2, 2015 file photo shows Manny Pacquiao from the Philippines, left, trading punches with Floyd Mayweather Jr., during their welterweight title fight in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

“The law is actually very clear and ignorance is no defence,” says Neil Parkes, a lawyer at the firm Foot Anstey. “If you’ve found a link online to stream the latest pay-per-view boxing match or a movie that’s on at the cinema free of charge, then the chances are it’s not a legal way to watch. As a rule of thumb, if it’s too good to be true then it usually is.”

In fact, there is a whole host of ways you can face problems.

“Copyright holders can join together and go on to the various file-sharing networks to discover the IP addresses that are infringing copyright,” says Ilona Smyth. “The copyright holders can then seek a court order requiring the internet service providers (ISPs) to provide them with the personal details of those infringing users. Once those details are obtained, copyright holders will usually contact those users and threaten with court action unless a settlement sum is paid. This is known as ‘volume litigation’.

“Copyright holders may also work together with the ISPs who are hosting the IP addresses of infringers and ask the ISPs to notify such infringers,” she adds. “If an individual repeatedly infringes, ISPs may impose technical sanctions on the individual, such as slowing down the user’s internet connection or cutting it off completely.”

There are also lots of systems in place to stop the infractions at their source.

“Around the world, most pirated copies of films are sourced in cinemas via ‘camcording’,” says Simon Brown, director of the Film Content Protection Agency (FCPA), who works with government agencies and law enforcement to track down the perpetrators.

“Individuals use compact digital devices, including smartphones, to record video and/or audio directly from cinemas. The stolen content may be distributed internationally online, or used to press counterfeit discs for sale worldwide. Online ‘release groups’ – of people who acquire pirated copies from thieves recording illegally in cinemas – are often the first source of piracy; they seek kudos as well as revenue from being first. Copies of illegally recorded films are also acquired by organised crime networks – typically operating for profit across multiple illegal activities.”

Engaging in this kind of behaviour, however, can bring serious consequences. Last year, a 21-year-old man was convicted of illegally recording 17 films at two local cinemas in Sunderland before posting them online. He was sentenced to two years community service. Meanwhile also last year in Glasgow, a man was convicted under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 and received a fine after being caught recording (also known as ‘camming’) a film in a local cinema.

That’s not even counting the huge Pirate Bay case or the person who received a 33-month prison sentence for camming a movie in Walsall in 2014 and then distributing it online.

These cases may be at the extreme end of the scale, but it’s a reminder how easily what seem like harmless attempts to watch a TV series you can’t get on your country’s Netflix, or catch up with something you missed on the big screen can spiral out of control. And as intellectual property becomes ever more precious, there’s no doubt that IP holders are going to push for harder sanctions on those who break the law. Don’t let yourself end up as a test case.

Read more
The hidden victims of piracy
Why piracy is more dangerous than you think
How piracy puts children in danger