Is It Illegal To Watch Bootlegged Movies Online?

You probably understand the illegality, not to mention unethical nature, of posting a pirated movie onto the internet – but do you understand the legal ramifications of simply watching a film that's already been uploaded to the web?

Much of my day is spent with teenagers, students at the school where I teach, and the majority of them simply don't worry about sourcing their media through piracy. They take music from Limewire, they take movies from Torrents or even just stream crummy copies. When challenged, a number of them have even told me that they're sure it can't be illegal – "if it is," they say, "then what's it doing on the internet?" They're obviously missing something there, but are they right that it's okay for them to watch?

The Chicago Sun Times (via THR Esq.) have spoken to a series of Lawyers, as well as reps from the MPAA about the issue. Steve Englund is a copyright attorney who told them:

It is certainly illegal to put online copyrighted content like a telecast of a fight or a motion picture without authorization. It is a little more complicated question whether it is illegal to watch it when someone else has put it online.

That complication is not to be mistaken for authority to dive head first into the torrents, of course, and all it will take is one test case to lock down the confusion forever.

Besides, I would argue that the legal issue is less relevant than the ethical one anyway. The question should be "Is It Ethical To Watch Bootlegged Movies Online?"

Talking to the many students at my school they display a sense of entitlement and seem to think that because they can grab a hold on a piece of media without paying for it, that they should, or that they are justified in doing so. They certainly have no conception of who they might be taking payment from. We should not forget that the people who make the movies depend on the cashflow to pay their salaries and, in a number of cases, particularly with smaller films, royalty-type points-based payments.

I'm old enough to remember when there was a real music industry with labels prepared to take far bigger gambles than they are now and a much greater wealth of albums and bands able to make a good living from making music. Songs take up so few data bits it was rather quickly possible to steal them via broadband connections. Movies take up rather more data, but internet speeds are getting faster and bandwidth getting wider – it's seemingly inevitable that the movie industry is going to be cut off at the knees as happened with music.

The forecast for box office returns is possibly rather different to that for home entertainment, seeing as the distinction between a data stream from a disc or sanctioned download and that from a stolen file is somewhat narrower than between a movie on a laptop and on a forty foot screen. We may be seeing that reflected in the big box office returns for New Moon, despite the apparent ease with which it can be found on the internet.

All the same, the ethics of piracy can't be measured by the resistance and financial success of the films in question but by the simple question of who is actually entitled to do what with and what. Copyright law was devised out of necessity to protect creators' rights and, as overgrown as that law could potentially become, those rights should still stand.