Is it legal to view unauthorized copyrighted materials on the internet?

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Is it legal to view unauthorized copyrighted materials on the internet?

It was my understanding that only purchasing, downloading, selling and/or redistributing copyrighted material was illegal. For instance, a video on YouTube containing a copyrighted song would only be illegal to the one who uploaded the video and not the viewer. Or if a copyrighted TV show was being streamed onto the Internet; the person streaming the show would be guilty of copyright infringement, not the person viewing it.

Asked on June 18, 2012 under Business Law, Alabama

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

Copyright prevents the unauthorized reproduction or distribution (among other things) of copyrighted works. The complexity with the internet is what exactly is "reproduction" or "distribution"--when you go to, say, YouTube, and stream a video, you are instructed the website to send the video to your computer--even if you are not downloading it, only streaming it, clearly content is being sent to your device. That may constitute "distribution," and certainly certain interests (like the recording industry) would argue that it does. There is an interactivity to viewing content on the internet that is not present with, for example, looking at a physical still picture that someone else made in violation of copyright, and that interactivity is what potentially turns "viewing" into "distributing."


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