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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?

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    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 '18 at 7:15
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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).

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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 '18 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. – Michael A. Schaffrath Feb 15 '18 at 13:12
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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.

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    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 '18 at 23:54
  • 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 '18 at 8:04

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