It happens so often: you want to see a certain movie but you can’t find it on Netflix or Redbox. If you don’t want to buy the movie, how else can you watch it? Many will choose to watch these movies online, free of charge. If you choose to do this, you need to know what’s legal and what isn’t. Take it from these University of Maryland students: no movie is worth jail time.

The Basics

Movies are a form of intellectual property. This term refers to “creations of the mind” that are used in commerce—think literary and artistic works, inventions, designs, symbols, etc. International Property (IP) Law protects these works by using copyrights, patents, and trademarks, so creators can earn recognition or money for their work. Movies, along with other artistic works like music and books, are protected by copyrights; illegally downloading anything violates the Copyright Act of 1976.


Most people know that downloading movies (as well as TV shows and music) for free from an unauthorized source is illegal. According to IP Law, it is illegal to steal a copy of copyrighted material. So, downloading a movie—or even part of a movie—is illegal because you’re unlawfully getting a copy of material that has been copyrighted.

Maximum penalty for a first offender: 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine

Maximum penalty for a repeat offender: 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine


Streaming movies is only illegal when it is done as a public performance—this is a copyright violation. However, outside of this case, streaming movies for free for one’s own enjoyment is legal.

The penalty for an unlicensed public performance is up to a $150,000 fine.

Streaming Websites

So, why is it so difficult to find legitimate websites where you can stream movies for free? Uploading or posting unlicensed streamed content on the Internet is illegal—that’s why so many video streaming websites get shut down so quickly. Some websites (like Project Free TV, for example) avoid getting shut down by just posting links to websites that have the movie or TV show you’re looking for; this includes links to sources like Hulu as well as websites that illegally upload movies.

Although streaming movies is currently legal, it’s important to be careful when doing so and to stay updated on the law. Congress may make video streaming illegal in the next few years, carrying a lighter sentence than video downloading.

As always, if you or someone you know is in need of legal assistance, please call our office at (301) 464-2500.