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Is It Legal to Download Television Shows?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Copyright protection laws are not always caught of up technology, so it's difficult to say, generally, whether you can legally download television shows with any sort of finality. Some legal analysts suggest that consumers who so are clearly in violation of existing copyright laws. Others equate the practice with videotaping or digitally recording broadcasts for later personal viewing. Currently, the most common methods used to download programs are very similar to file-sharing systems already being challenged in courts around the world. There are also legal ways to download TV, usually by purchasing individual episodes or full seasons from a company that has the legal right to redistribute the programs.

The technology to download television shows — legally or otherwise — is widely available, and sales of the equipment that allow digital recordings have not been outlawed. Digital video recorder (DVR) devices allow users to record and save television shows, and some even allow them to be transferred to a computer or burned to a DVD. These devices may also allow the user to pause live television and skip commercials on recorded programs at the press of a button. In at least the US, DVRs fall under the same protection as video cassette recorders (VCRs), with the user agreeing to not distribute the recorded material commercially and do all viewing in a private home.

With the advent of streaming video and broadband Internet services, however, the legality of downloading television shows has become less clear in many cases. Producing a primetime comedy or drama can be a very expensive venture for network executives. Creative artists such as writers, directors and actors must be compensated for their skills, and technical expenses must also be recouped. While networks recover many of these expenses through the sale of advertising, sometimes the profit margin is surprisingly thin. When a TV show is downloaded from a file sharing site, the people who put their time and money into it are usually not compensated.

There is also the question of copyright, which is designed to establish legal ownership of the show as a creative work. Whoever owns the copyright to the show has the right not only to make money from the program, but also to reproduce it and transmit it. When someone copies a program without the owner's consent and makes digital copies available, they are usually violating the copyright.

In at least the US, it is legal to use a DVR to download television shows for private viewing. In a copyright law sense, it may be illegal to download shows from any source not authorized by the legal owners of those shows to distribute that content. A person can legally download TV programs that are offered through authorized services licensed by the owners. Most of the major broadcast networks in the United States also now have websites that stream selected episodes of shows to viewers.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to EasyTechJunkie, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon324462 — On Mar 11, 2013

Anon26783 is incorrect. When you download via a torrent client, more often than not, you are sharing bits of data to other members. This is, in effect, uploading copyrighted material.

I would suggest using movie2k to view your shows. Let them deal with the legality of it since you are viewing the show, online, in a stream, hosted by other sites. You are uploading nothing relating to the program and therefore should be in no legal issue.

It is illegal to rob a store, but it is not illegal to watch it happen. It is illegal to distribute content, but it is not illegal to watch it.

I just found out about movie2k myself and I am using it as an unregistered user. Still a bit standoffish until I have used it a a period.

By anon322982 — On Mar 02, 2013

@anon26783, Post 4: That is absurd. This is like saying that it is legal to buy drugs but not to sell them.

Fact is, you would still be considered an accomplice because you enabled the sale to happen, thus you took part in breaking the law.

By anon322255 — On Feb 26, 2013

@Post 24: As a software developer, I take offense to your comment. Would you take a Lamborghini out of a dealer's lot to drive around, just because you like to drive for fun, and you can't afford to buy one? Of course not. If the dealers allows you to take a test drive (for a limited amount of time / distance traveled), that is up to them.

The same goes for software. Developers are able to give potential customers trial licenses that expire after a certain amount of time or number of uses. It is by no means a requirement that they do so (although doing so would arguably give them a marketing advantage over competitors who do not do so, because more users would have experience with their product.)

The moral of the story is that it is both the dealer's and the developer's choice as to whether they allow a "test drive" of their product. If they do not provision for it, it is not up to a potential customer / user to take it upon themselves to take their product.

Please think about this before you infringe on a copyright or take someone's intellectual property.

By anon282219 — On Jul 27, 2012

I think that first, recording a tv show to view it later and only for you and your family living with you is all right. Selling or redistributing the recorded show from TV is wrong.

Second, When you buy a musical record or a video or a movie and the product is an original, legally produced and legally sold item or items, not involved in piracy, and only for your own personal use, transferring it to the hard drive is O.K. But if you transfer to other means of recording, like CDs, etc., to obtain monetary rewards or any other advantages, even though you are not gaining money but you redistribute them, then this is wrong. I base the above paragraphs on what i think is "fair use" of the copyrighted materials.

Third, I think the prices of the recorded materials should be lowered to be available to common people, which will prevent piracy. The pirate sells the stolen copyrighted material because he is convinced he will make money because the original legal material is sold at prices not easily accessible to the common people and that is the reason why piracy exists.

Of course, this is only my own personal sense of what is justice applied to recording and copying.

I do not know if any judiciary system in the USA or other countries of the world are in accordance with what i think regarding this matter.

By anon242995 — On Jan 25, 2012

Great Q & A. Thanks to all. This was informative and answered the same questions I had.

By anon242018 — On Jan 21, 2012

Canadian indian reserves are not regulated. I once setup a tv station there and all our content was download. I checked with industry canada and others.

I asked them specifically "what happens if someone reports me for broadcasting downloaded material from the internet."

Their response, "Well, aside form religious, or political propaganda, we do not enforce any type of regulations for that specific media type, and we would refer the complaints to the station manager .... what we do regulate is the broadcasting power." As long as your equipment does not exceed 50Mhz (not sure of that number as its been a while) and there is currently no commercial broadcasters in the area, you're free to do as your wish.

By anon217766 — On Sep 26, 2011

What about if a tv show is already being aired on multiple channels in an area? e.g family guy. Downloading a copy for personal use surely isn't illegal. And as for downloading expensive software, I fully agree that if you like the software and intend to use it for commercial use then buy it. I can't see any problem with people downloading the software if they just intend to try it (I've just got my hands on Autodesks latest 2012 suit) for me to buy that "legally" I would have to pay $27,000 USD is that fair and reasonable for a small time hobbyist animator/cad designer to pay that much for software?

P.S. Open source free software is good but sometimes it doesn't have everything that commercial software has.

By anon156312 — On Feb 26, 2011

@no. 22: The US Court would disagree with you at the present. Look up Federal judge New York ordered ivi, Inc.

Perhaps if you could restrict your distribution to IP Addresses located only in the broadcast market (and call that your "cable system") where you recorded the show, you could win in court.

However, that's a big technical hurdle, and it means you'd have to have OTA recording systems physically located in each market (This is basically what cable companies do, and they pay a license fee and then rebroadcast the local OTA content to just the market that is able to get it OTA). But per the current court ruling, you cannot rebroadcast the same show nationally, and you have to be a "cable system."

By anon149834 — On Feb 05, 2011

Over the air via antenna is free as it is distributed to the public at no cost, and perfectly legal to store on digital media/ streaming as well.

By anon144795 — On Jan 20, 2011

I think the law needs to be broken down into distinct parts listing what is and what isn't legal. Until that happens, the law is going to remain unclear.

My person opinion is such that if one has already obtained legal access to the material, then all routes to obtaining that material should be legal assuming they are not illegal in another way (i.e. mugging someone for a copy of something you already have would be illegal for an entirely different reason).

Example of this: You pay a subscription to a legal tv service (such as Sky) during the time the show is shown via that service. You therefore have legal access to that show (the material). As long as you follow normal fair use policy it would seem absurd to suggest you could not download and watch it on your pc instead/as well.

This would also sort out the legal issue of content that is not available in your region (in any way, shape, or form), as there would be no legal route in the first place.

The issue that would not be sorted out is the legal status of watching content early, before the service you pay for shows it.

One could argue that the delay would be merely superficial as it would have no impact on what you would pay for to watch the show, assuming it has been confirmed that the service will definitely provide content and that you have already paid in advance for the service.

By anon131656 — On Dec 03, 2010

to - anon59061. The difference between loaning or giving a movie to a friend and sharing it digitally with friends over the net is this: When you loan/give your dvd to a friend, it is only one dvd. You aren't both in possession of the movie. When you share digitally over a network, you are reproducing the media, which is where the legality comes into question.

By anon121494 — On Oct 24, 2010

I use utorrent at times and there you are able to adjust d/l and u/l speed at 0 or max if you don't seed it can be slow d/l. to fix this problem you can join a pay torrent site. they are not expensive. your ip modem address is shown when u/loading and the bad guys d/l the same item as you and pick up the ip addresses. it's nearly called entrapment which is i think not legal, but they do not care.

By anon115955 — On Oct 05, 2010

I'm surprised the tv companies haven't supported online downloads through their own servers, but included ads throughout, as essentially that is where their revenue is. A viewer has the ability to skip through the adds, but so does a user who records it with their dvd player.

By anon98120 — On Jul 22, 2010

Some folks like me live in countries that do not carry american tv shows on their channels, and so-called internet stream sites are often not available and when they are, they often have bad streams and are just unbearable to watch. Downloading my shows via P2P is my only option other than paying outrageous prices to buy them in DVD season sets when other people get them free right on their TVs at home in the U.S.

By anon69455 — On Mar 08, 2010

The price of software/media has nothing to do with piracy because software as cheap as $5-$10 gets downloaded illegally. People like getting stuff for free, that's all it is. It won't make a difference if they lower the cost of the product.

If you can't afford expensive software, take a look at open source alternatives. There are lots of free software for windows or even have a go at linux.

Music on iTunes is $1-$2 per track and that's not asking a lot.

Movies are $10-$20, and you could even rent a film from video rental shops for a lot cheaper.

While downloading this stuff off the internet for free by peer to peer networks is not stealing, it's copyright infringement and you can still get into trouble for it if you're unlucky.

A lot of people don't even realize what they're doing is illegal.

you won't get into serious legal trouble unless you actually upload content to P2P Networks, however.

By anon62742 — On Jan 28, 2010

all I know is that I have gotten a warning from my cable company/isp about downloading trueblood from HBO, but have never had an issue with other stuff, Office, 30 Rock (non pay channels)etc. This is confusing to me because The Office and 30 Rock are sold as DVD's after the show is aired, but free to stream on their website, etc.

By anon61548 — On Jan 20, 2010

As another non US resident, it is frustrating to try to deal with all the available content to be told it is not currently available outside of the USA. Netflix is one example.

What difference is my payment versus a US residents payment as far as the film or show getting their cut? I cannot subscribe to direct tv or dish network. Once again my money is no good? I think the whole industry is making trouble for itself by not opening up.

Piracy will continue until media is easy and affordable. On the other hand it could mean the death of cable companies also.

By anon60645 — On Jan 15, 2010

I have just set up my PR agency in Bangalore, India called 'Nucleus'. Often national tracking agencies don't cater to clients who want local news tracking of their stories. I am planning on starting this myself.

I have figured out how to record and edit news stories aired on the channels but am not aware if there are any permissions required for it as there are probably of 2/3 companies in this business and it's a closely guarded secret. Please guide if you can. Thanks in advance.

By anon59061 — On Jan 06, 2010

Downloading TV and movies are essentially time shifting. I would say though that time shifting probably only applies if you already have access to or pay for a service that would have shown the program in the first place.

Recording an episode of 'The Office' by VCR or DVR (and eventually transferring to whatever media for your personal use) is clearly allowed by the Betamax decision. It's free and over the air. You pay for it by watching the commercials - which is another issue altogether - the revenue model no longer works with the invention of the DVR and Net but that doesn't make it illegal.

I pay for HBO and can set my DVR to record, say, True Blood. So what's the difference if I download it off of the Net and simply save myself a couple of steps to transfer it to the format I'm allowed to use it in according to Fair Use?

And to take the Dexter example from the other comment. I don't subscribe to Showtime but could order Dexter on Netflix or stream it on my PS3 or PC instantly. My point is there's minimal difference about *where* it comes from when I'm paying into 'the system' at multiple points - notwithstanding that the people making available Season 4 of Dexter on the Net are technically doing so illegally.

Although legally speaking I don't see any difference (besides the scale) of buying a DVD and then loaning/giving it to a friend (which is legal) versus giving it to your 'virtual' friends via P2P (not legal). Interestingly, there's been no claims of damages through the exchange of media via closed/private networks.

The big difference is convenience, which corporations haven't figured out yet as they try to grasp at the last straws of revenue. If they don't figure it out soon, they'll find themselves in the same positions as print newspapers are in now primarily because of Craigslist.

By anon56133 — On Dec 12, 2009

Thank you anon26783 for helping me understand this. I have been trying to find a good article on this subject forever. Now the search is over, and i can eat again :)

By anon55206 — On Dec 05, 2009

I have been done for downloading Dexter (season 4) via bit torrent. I just received an email from my ISP, telling me that if I continue to do this, they will disconnect me. The complainant is Showtime US.

I am not in the US, I am in Australia. Dexter is shown here late at night and is only currently up to season 3. So reasonably, if I wanted to, I could record it on a VCR or DVR late at night and edit out the ads etc. and watch it for my own personal viewing. I'm sure this is something the majority of us do. And as far as Australian law is concerned, it is something not pursued, even though it is a grey area of legality.

So I am allowed to tape Dexter late at night at home, but I am not allowed to download later episodes at home. It doesn't make much sense.

Another thing is that some movies, especially older ones, are unavailable in Australia at the video shop or online to buy in the Region 4 format.

I sometimes download these shows and unavailable movies so that I can have it for me and my family to watch. I don't copy them multiple times and give them out, or sell them on, to others. They are for personal viewing only.

So what are the international laws regarding the downloading of movies/tv shows? Showtime US said I could buy the episodes from their website, but when I went there they said I couldn't because I'm not in the US. So I'm in a catch-22.

I would pay for them, if the cost was reasonable, as I am quite addicted to some of these shows and they are either not shown on free-to-air TV for many years (they are on pay-TV but I don't have or want it), or they are not shown at all.

Does Showtime US have the right to hassle a non-US citizen?

As soon as I finish downloading the movies/tv shows, I move them out of the download folder and onto my own personal hard drive, meaning there is minimal sharing on my part (occasionally I am a seed while I'm still downloading - can I disable this mechanism?).

I thought it was legal to download as long as I am a) not being a seed (uploading), or b) not making multiple copies and selling them on.

It's so hazy and the laws are not keeping up with the technology. Please post here if you can answer my questions. Thanks.

By anon52783 — On Nov 17, 2009

but what are the ramifications of posting such a circular argument which is designed to explore the intricacies of the english language? Surely this approach is frustrating to the uneducated masses?

By anon49094 — On Oct 17, 2009

Let's say that a certain channel named WK44, airs an episode of smallville. I mr. A and my friend mr. B owe a TV subscription for viewing the channel and all of its programs. If my friend mr. B was at work the night that smallville episode was aired and he asked me to tape or tv-rip the episode for him and then send it to him through a p2p technology in an passworded .rar archive, can this be called illegal? For me the obvious answer would be, *no*. If i and my friend pay a monthly subscription to view this channel and if we don't use the recorded shows for commercial purposes, then we are also very much entitled to watch something I paid for no matter when and through what means. Unless tv companies expect us to quit our jobs in order to view our favorite shows.

By anon26783 — On Feb 18, 2009

Copyright protects the right of *distribution*. You are not legally entitled to *distribute* the content unless you have permission of the copyright holder.

In a straight "online download" situation (ignoring P2P programs where you are *also* sending the file to others), the downloader is not breaking the copyright in any way. The server you're downloading it from may very well be, but the *downloader* is completely in the clear, legally speaking.

By isitlegal — On Jan 17, 2009

The legalities of downloading a tv show or other such form of media is an interesting discussion topic. The legalities and ramifications of acting on such questions and answers thereof make for a challenging opportunity in seeking the correct and relevant answers to such questions of legalities, is it legal to..

By anon20619 — On Nov 03, 2008

Nice. As clear as the muddied waters of TV copyright law can get. Thanks.

By anon4558 — On Oct 23, 2007

Thank you so much for this extremely useful and succinct article. I have not seen another article as clear on the topic of downloading TV shows.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to EasyTechJunkie, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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