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Whether or not it is legal to download TV shows depends on several factors and is an evolving area of law that is playing catch-up to technology. Much depends upon the source of the file, the show’s copyright status, and the country in which one lives. In many cases it is the provider that uploads the show to the Internet that is breaking the law by illegal distribution of copyrighted content, but it can also be illegal to download television shows.
Within U.S. copyright law is a “fair use” statute that basically allows for a person to restrictively duplicate or share copyrighted material for casual use within limited circumstances. For example, if you purchase a book and let your neighbor read it when you’re through, this is considered fair use. Fair use also allows for copying tracks off your legally purchased CDs to make a personal compilation of music. Along the same lines it is also legal to make a “hard copy” (video tape or digital recording) of your favorite program as it is broadcast to your television. Fair use does not allow for re-distribution or sale of copyrighted materials.
Based on the fair use precedence, some argue it is legal to download TV shows that have already been broadcast to your home. The problem with this argument, as seen by copyright holders, is twofold. First, downloaders might not pay for the content at home. Secondly, copyright holders hope to sell licensing rights to televise shows in other countries. When episodes wind up on the Internet, the series essentially becomes free to the world, violating distribution and copyright laws.
For these reasons, networks generally do not want consumers to download television shows, regardless of a downloader’s perceived status, real or imagined, of acting fairly under the law. The virtual sole exception is if the network makes the show available itself, which is increasingly the case through websites like Hulu, owned by NBC and News Corp.
Premium cable networks like Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime have uploaded episodes of original series’ to spark interest in subscription services. Many free to air broadcasters also make TV content available for download, such as the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). It is completely legal to download TV shows from these original sources for personal use.
It is also legal to download TV shows when the copyright owners have released material for free distribution. This is sometimes the case with older series’ that have long been internationally licensed and have no further distribution value.
It seems likely the Internet of the future will play a role in distributing all TV content through a means that is both acceptable and profitable to copyright holders and convenient for consumers. In the meantime, if you’d like to download TV shows that you don’t already pay for at home (or receive free to air), chances are it is unlawful unless the source is the network that produced the show, or a licensed distributor. If you do receive the show at home but the network doesn’t provide it online, chances are the source is illegal.