I understand that distribution of copyrighted content is illegal, but have always thought that receiving that content was legal. However, I recently read a news article stating that people streaming pirated movies were being sued.

What law prevents you from watching these illegal movies?

What if the movie is being illegally aired on TV (and I was aware of this)? Would I have to immediately change the channel?

What if a professor distributed photocopies of a book without the author's permission? Would I have to avoid looking at those pages and throw them away as soon as I had a chance?

  • 2
    What news article? "Streaming" could mean clicking on a link and watching a stream (that you believe is legitimate), but it could also mean distributing information (e.g. copyrighted video) via a streaming service. The latter is illegal if you aren't authorized to distribute that material.
    – Brandin
    Feb 14, 2018 at 7:15

4 Answers 4


If by "streaming," you mean "having my web browser create temporary copies of media from an online source so that I can view it," then Canadian law is unclear. I can't really do better to demonstrate than to cite a few articles on the subject.

According to Alex Buonassisi and Jennifer Marles of IP law firm Oyen Wiggs:

[...] it is not entirely clear that receiving an unauthorized stream of a copyrighted work in Canada does not infringe copyright. At best, this activity could be said to fall within a grey zone.

According to Sandy Kang writing for law school blog IP Osgoode:

As for users of such websites, it is currently uncertain whether their act of streaming video would be found to infringe.

According to Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor specializing in IP:

The most controversial sources are unauthorized streaming websites that offer free content without permission of the rights holder. [...] Those accessing the streams are unlikely to be infringing copyright, however.

As you can see, there is a variety of expert opinions on whether streaming pirated movies is an infringement. The section under debate is 30.71 on temporary reproductions, especially subsection (b):

It is not an infringement of copyright to make a reproduction of a work or other subject-matter if

(a) the reproduction forms an essential part of a technological process;

(b) the reproduction’s only purpose is to facilitate a use that is not an infringement of copyright; and

(c) the reproduction exists only for the duration of the technological process.

I don't want to duplicate what articles above have already stated, but I'd like to dive deeper into Bishop v. Stevens, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 467, cited by the first two articles as a similar case (reaffirmed in 2015 after a few rounds of statute amendments). In it the Supreme Court held that prerecorded "ephemeral" copies used to facilitate a broadcast was an infringement.

The key piece of reasoning is:

[... the broadcaster] has not established that, at the time of their enactment, the sections of the Act providing for the right to broadcast a performance must have been understood to include the right to prerecord. Even now it remains fully possible, and quite common, to broadcast live performances.

To me, there are two key differences why this logic might not directly transpose to the streaming pirated movies situation:

  1. "Ephemeral" prerecorded copies aren't necessarily "temporary" copies within the scope of section 30.71 above, particularly subsections (a) and (c) might not strictly be met.

  2. This case discusses the point of view of the broadcaster which is analogous to the hoster, not the end-user. While making ephemeral/temporary copies might not be strictly necessary for broadcasting, viewing online content necessarily creates at least a temporary copy on the end-user's computer.

Two other random notes:

  1. None of the involved sections have a "reasonableness" or "should have known" clause whereas they are present in other parts of the Copyright Act. This means whether its legal should theoretically depend strictly on the facts (i.e. if it turns out to be illegal, pleading "oh I didn't know it was pirated" won't work).

  2. Funny enough, I don't actually see anything in the law that would differentiate between streaming online pirated video and your example of something illegal being aired on TV provided its digital (presumably some part of the TV has a temporary copy too).


There is no such law

The law of Canada prohibits making and distributing Unauthorized copies, and various other acts that infringe copyright, None of its provisions prohibit reading or watching unauthorized copies. In this regard it is the same as US law and the copyright law of most countries.

If you make a temporary copy (say in your computer's cache) while reading or watching, that might be an infringement if the source copy was unauthorized (section 29.22 (1) permits this if the source copy was legally obtained). But when done for personal use, such infringements are almost never the basis ofd a lawsuit. Note that in Canada, as in the US, copyright infringement is not a crime if not done for commercial purposes, only a tort allowing the owner to sue and possibly collect damages.

In the Copyright Act of Canada, section 3(1) specifies the rights that make up copyright as:

For the purposes of this Act, copyright, in relation to a work, means the sole right to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatever, to perform the work or any substantial part thereof in public or, if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part thereof, ...

That section goes on to specify a number of specific rights, but none of them include any right to control who watches a movie or other audio-visual work, who listens to a sound recording, or who reads a written work.

Section 27 (1) provides that:

It is an infringement of copyright for any person to do, without the consent of the owner of the copyright, anything that by this Act only the owner of the copyright has the right to do.

Section 27 (2) provides that:

It is an infringement of copyright for any person to

(a) sell or rent out,

(b) distribute to such an extent as to affect prejudicially the owner of the copyright,

(c) by way of trade distribute, expose or offer for sale or rental, or exhibit in public,

(d) possess for the purpose of doing anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c), or

(e) import into Canada for the purpose of doing anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c),

a copy of a work, sound recording or fixation of a performer’s performance or of a communication signal that the person knows or should have known infringes copyright or would infringe copyright if it had been made in Canada by the person who made it.

Section 27 (2.3) provides that:

(2.3) It is an infringement of copyright for a person, by means of the Internet or another digital network, to provide a service primarily for the purpose of enabling acts of copyright infringement if an actual infringement of copyright occurs by means of the Internet or another digital network as a result of the use of that service.

Section 29.22 (1) permits making a copy for personal use if the source is a legally-obtained, non-infringing copy and it 9is used only for private purposed and not distributed. This section would not apply if the source is a pirated copy.


I am by no means an expert in law questions, so anything I write here should be considered with caution. Anybody please correct me if I write anything wrong.

I don't know canadian law, but in Germany it is illegal to make a copy of copyrighted material if the source obvoiusly does not have the permission to distribute. If you are watching a stream on any pirate website, that premise is oviously given, so the question is whether watching a stream can be consired making a copy. Now the content lobby is arguing that watching a stream technically makes a temporary copy of the copyrighted material which is stored in your computers cache. That would make watching a stream of a pirated movie illegal.

Regarding your other questions:

What if the movie is being illegally aired on TV (and I was aware of this)? Would I have to immediately change the channel?

If it is aired on TV you can generally assume that the network has the permission to broadcast, so it would not be illegal for you to watch it.

What if a professor distributed photocopies of a book without the author's permission? Would I have to avoid looking at those pages and throw them away as soon as I had a chance?

Since the act of copying is the illegal part, in this case the professor would act illegally by copying and distributing it.

  • Does "obvious" have a legal definition? For example, it is generally known that YouTube has a content ID system that sometimes flags copied content, so one might reasonably assume that if it is streamed over YouTube, it is with permission. But on the other hand, if you look around YouTube hard enough you will 'obviously' be able to find illegal content, for some definition of 'obvious'.
    – Brandin
    Feb 15, 2018 at 13:04
  • @Brandin As far as I know there is no legal definition for the "obviously illegal source" and it is up the courts to decide. Feb 15, 2018 at 13:12

It is illegal because it is a violation of copyright law.

Someone who knowingly watches a pirated video is guilty because they have knowingly violated copyright law.

Someone who watches a pirated video believing that it was duly licensed for their use has, at least, not eligible for criminal copyright violation sanctions or the most serious civil copyright violations, because they lack the intent of a knowing violation and are thus only subject to civil copyright remedies (e.g. destroying the pirated copy) that apply on a strict liability basis.

  • 1
    Can you be more specific about how knowingly watching a pirated video is a violation of copyright law if there is no reproduction or distribution involved?
    – Greendrake
    Feb 15, 2018 at 23:54
  • 1
    Copyright protects copying. If the suggestion here were true, then it would also be a 'violation' to read a quoted passage of a text (technically copyright violation) without making a fair use defence. No, only the one who copies may violate copyright, so the only question is whether streaming is, in fact, copying.
    – Brandin
    Feb 16, 2018 at 8:04

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