With the current trend towards cord cutting, “IPTV” has become an increasingly common buzzword. People want to watch live channels on their televisions and IPTV provides a solution.
But what is IPTV? And, more importantly, is IPTV legal? As ever with legal questions, the answer is somewhat nuanced. Let’s take a closer look at the issues involved.
What Is IPTV?
Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) is a catch-all term for any television that’s broadcast over the web rather than via more traditional means.
There are actually many different forms of IPTV. These include:
- Online-only TV providers like Sling TV and DirecTV.
- TV networks’ apps such as BBC iPlayer and FOX Now which offer both live TV and on-demand videos.
- Online-only TV channels such as Cheddar TV.
- Websites that offer free live TV.
- Plugins for apps like Kodi, Plex, and Emby.
- Third-party subscription IPTV services.
Finally, even though they are not broadcasting live, on-demand video services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video also fall under the IPTV umbrella.
Is IPTV Legal?
And so, to the main question: Is IPTV legal? The answer: It depends.
Let’s work through some of the different types of IPTV that we looked at in the previous section to determine whether or not they’re legal.
Firstly, the online-only TV providers. Naturally, they are entirely legal. All of the channels are fully licensed from their respective source.
Indeed, there’s a surprising amount of overlap between the different services and existing telecoms companies. Hulu is part-owned by Disney, AT&T, and Comcast. AT&T also owns DirecTV, and Dish owns Sling TV.
TV networks’ own apps and online-only TV channels are also both entirely legal (though you should be aware that circumventing the apps’ geo-blocking efforts is often against the terms and conditions and could result in a ban).
In the final three categories—websites, plugins, and third-party subscription services—things start to become less clear.
Some websites offer legal IPTV streams for free. Two common examples are USTVNow in the United States and TVPlayer in the U.K.
Both offer some live TV channels for free with the option to increase the number available for a monthly fee.
However, there are plenty of websites that offer live TV streams without owning the requisite rights. Lots of sports fans who are desperate to see their team in action will be familiar with them.
These are on the wrong side of the law. The developers of such sites can—and have been—hauled up in courts across the U.S. and Europe. Often, the judges have handed down custodial sentences.
One of the main attractions of apps like Plex and Kodi is the availability of plugins. Many of the plugins provide access to IPTV streams.
Some plugins are offered by the official companies, some third-party apps use APIs to legal provide IPTV streams, and some—such and Exodus on Kodi—are downright illegal.
In the United States, plugins like Exodus are illegal under the “inducement rule.” It is a test created in a 2005 Supreme Court ruling which states that a company or website can be held accountable for distributing unlicensed content if it clearly encourages users to infringe a copyright.
Illegal IPTV Subscription Services
The final category is IPTV subscription services. If you know where to look on sites like Reddit, you will be able to find dozens of IPTV providers who charge anything from $5/month to $20/month for access to live TV channels from around the world.
Often the providers are surprisingly sophisticated, with web apps, apps for devices like Android TV and Roku, and even fully-fleshed out TV guides.
It goes without saying that these services are illegal. The providers of such services are putting themselves at risk of prosecution. There is a clear precedent for authorities preferring to open legal proceedings against the uploaders rather than the downloaders.
Watching Illegal IPTV as an End-User
As an end-user, there are a few different legal arguments at play.
Watching Illegal IPTV in Europe
In Europe, watching illegal streams has been definitively illegal since an April 2017 decision by the EU Court of Justice. It ruled that streaming copyrighted content without the correct permissions or subscriptions is breaking the law.
There are now numerous examples of volume litigation across the continent. If a copyright holder discovers the IP address of someone who’s watching an illegal stream, they can take out a court order to force the user’s ISP to release their personal information. From there, the rights holders will contact the viewer and threaten them with court action unless they pay a settlement.
Dig around in a few online forums, and you can find stories from people who have incurred heavy fines.
Watching Illegal IPTV in the United States
In the United States, there’s an oft-repeated trope that streaming copyrighted material is not illegal. The argument claims it’s only illegal if you download it.
This is entirely false.
By watching any video that requires buffering, you are technically downloading illegal content onto your computer and are thus in breach of the law. Some services will even make an entire temporary copy of the video in a cache.
And that’s where the legal gray area arises. For a copy, the copy has to be visible for more than a transitory period of time. The amount of time that qualifies as “transitory” is not defined in law and has not been tested in the courts.
Of course, even if you’re in breach, the likelihood of a copyright owner chasing a single user through the courts is small.
But beware, while the chances may be slim, there have been some cases whereby a company did sue an individual, presumably in a bid to publicly make an example of them. And lest we forget that in 2012, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) famously successfully sued a woman for $220,000 for illegally downloading 24 songs.
Do You Have Any Legal Defense?
Let’s preface this by saying that we’re not lawyers. So you shouldn’t take this as definitive legal advice.
That said, one of the few arguments you can make if you’re caught watching illegal IPTV is to invoke the notion of “safe harbor,” as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act outlines.
Safe harbor protects intermediaries against infringements of which they are not aware. Some legal experts have argued that the same logic could be extended to end-users.
If you could prove that you didn’t know you were watching illegal streams, you might be OK. But there’s certainly no guarantee. And if a judge seizes your laptop, and computer forensic experts can prove a history of searching for such streams, you’d quickly lose your argument.
Other Legal Questions
In conclusion, some IPTV is legal, and some isn’t. You need to be alert so you can spot the illegal services and stay on the right side of the law. If you don’t, you could quickly land in trouble with your ISP, or worse, a copyright holder.
If you’d like to learn more about the legal aspects of technology, we have other content you should read. Here’s our article discussing the legality of Kodi and here’s our guide to copyright vs. copyleft.