I am not sure if this is the right form to ask this question, so please tell me if I should post this somewhere else.

There are some websites (like this) that have part of the page free to view, and the rest of the page is locked behind a paywall/subscription/trial/registration.

Now, these websites send over all all the content, even content that is supposed to be behind a paywall, and just hide the content with a CSS class. This means that the page contains all the content, but some of it is hidden by the browser on my end. So, this means that if the CSS engine of my browser breaks, or the stylesheet is not received properly, or I analyze the source of the website, I can read the whole content, without any sort of payment. The whole content is buried in the source of the page, I am not accessing URLs that I am not supposed to.

Now, I know that no website is going to care about this, but I am curious, am I breaking any terms and conditions/laws by doing this. On one hand, I am entirely within my rights to see the content that the website is sending in any form I see fit. On the other hand, I am not viewing the content in the way the original authors envisioned.

Note: I am in India, and most sites are based in the US or EU. So, I am interested in whichever countries' jurisdiction will apply.

  • What country/jurisdiction's laws are you interested in? – JeffUK Mar 15 at 10:51
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    If I am in India, and the site is based in, say, the US or EU, which jurisdiction will apply? – Kartik Soneji Mar 15 at 11:03
  • If somebody sends you a package by mistake, do you suppose it is legal to keep the contents? That the sender would have no claim upon realizing you had the item? – Patrick87 Mar 15 at 17:52
  • @Patrick87 But if the sender intends to send the package, then I have full right to anything and everything in the package, unless stated otherwise, right? It is not that the site is unaware that they are including the full content, it is a conscious choice that had to be made during the development of the site, and any web developer who knows anything about how websites work will know that this this content would be visible to anyone who cared to look. – Kartik Soneji Mar 15 at 18:25
  • My browser doesn't support CSS - what does the site have to say anout that? – Moo Mar 15 at 23:35

A web site that is serious on protecting some content behind a paywall will put the protected content, or a version of the page with both protected and unprotected content, on separate page or pages, so arranged that a user will not be able to follow the link until that user has signed in and been accepted as an authorized user. A site that merely uses CSS to hide "protected" content is not really protecting it. CSS is designed to be modified by the ultimate user -- that is part of its function.

If the site chooses to send you content, you are entitled to read it. Even if some of the content has a CSS tag attached which suppresses or obscures the display of that content, they know perfectly well that any user can supersede this with local CSS, and so I don't see how they have any legal claim, nor any way of knowing if you have accessed the "hidden" content or not.

If you attempt to bypass or hack a login screen, that might be circumvention under the US DMCA, or "Unauthorized computer access" under any of several laws.

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    @KartikSoneji I think you are plainly wrong about "CSS was never meant to be modified by the end user." I think the original purpose of CSS was that each user provides their own style sheet. For example, a blind person might want all content delivered via audio or via braille and might provide their own style sheet to control how things show up in these alternative media. – emory Mar 16 at 2:00
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    @KartikSoneji every desktop browser has the option for the user to override every sites stylesheet, or not use any sites stylesheet. The user does not have to use the sites stylesheet at all. CSS is there for styling, it's a suggestion by the website, it's not a legal or technical requirement. You as a user are not beholden to use all or indeed any of the assets a site wants you to use, be it HTML, CSS, JavaScript, images, whatever. This is why adblockers are completely legal. – Moo Mar 16 at 4:17
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    @KartikSoneji Emory is highlighting the fact that when CSS was introduced, the intention of the CSS working group was that a user could decide how a site they are visiting looks, by supplying their own stylesheet. It's just so happened that we've ended up accepting the websites defaults in pretty much all cases and the original intention was forgotten, but it still exists as a capability. – Moo Mar 16 at 4:19
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    @emory browsers interpret css differently, it's a nightmare for web developers 😂 – Moo Mar 16 at 4:21
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    @KartikSoneji yes they can, what they cannot argue is that it must be viewed in a certain way. The only way to deny that is to not serve the content they want to be hidden. – Moo Mar 16 at 5:34

I'll tackle the jurisdiction part of your question since none of the other answers here address it.

You are within India's jurisdiction, so India's law would apply to you regardless of where the site(s) are hosted from. If what you're doing were illegal in India (and the company who owns the copyright were aggrieved enough to make a case out of it), they would have to ask your government for permission to sue you, which isn't going to happen for something like what you described.

Now, regarding the technicals...

Bypassing copy protection mechanisms to access information for which you do not have a license would fall under anti-curcumvention laws. In the US, that would be the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and the Copyright Directive in the EU.

Anti-curcumvention laws make it illegal to circumvent any "technological measure" that controls access to a copyrighted work. Those laws are highly controversial because "any technological measure" is vague and overly broad in scope. Obviously, cracking an encryption key or exploiting an authentication bug qualifies. But removing a simple CSS tag?? That'd be like holding an envelope up to a light bulb and calling it mail fraud. It's the digital equivalent of removing a piece of masking tape.

It's hard to see how that could be considered a technological measure under the law. It certainly does not fit within the additional language those laws use to describe examples of technological measures.

Also an interesting footnote...

Both the US and EU laws are implementations of the WIPO Copyright Treaty. India is NOT a signatory to that treaty.

  • Thank you for clearing the question of jurisdiction. – Kartik Soneji Mar 20 at 11:40

It depends on your intent.

If you take actions specifically aimed to freely access content for which the website is expecting you to pay, you at least break the site's terms. This is equivalent to sneaking into a venue and seeing the performance without buying a ticket: although you cause no damage that the venue/site could claim through the court, you violate any applicable laws about unauthorised access — tresspassing/hacking. The fact that the content is already on your computer does not change this: think of a meal at a restaurant that is already in your stomach but you haven't paid the bill yet.

If you were simply investigating what is wrong with the website ("CSS engine of my browser breaks, or the stylesheet is not received properly") then there is nothing illegal if this accidentally makes you see the paid content.

  • For example, suppose I give you a paper to read. Half of the text is written in normal ink and the rest is written in invisible ink. I tell you that you can read the paper, but if you want me to make the invisible ink readable, you have to buy a solution that only I have. But, you discover that if you heat the paper, you can read the invisible ink. Is it illegal to do so without paying me? I could argue that I never wanted you to heat the paper. – Kartik Soneji Mar 15 at 18:56
  • Ah, yes, but it is very specifically mentioned in all the venue's advertising and Terms and Conditions, that I cannot enter the venue without paying for the ticket. The website on the other hand, is freely broadcasting the entire source of the webpage, with the full content, to anyone who asks for it (but not accidently. This is not a mistake, the site fully intends to do just that). What they do not intend is someone changing the CSS. Like if the performance can be seen very clearly from my apartment window, and I watch it from there, then there is nothing the venue can do about it. – Kartik Soneji Mar 15 at 19:02
  • Meh, the intention has nothing to do with it - they sent you the content, you can read it. If they don't want you to read it, they shouldn't send you the content. Experts Exchange tried this approach to game search engines - put the question at the top of the page, and underneath it put 50 obfuscated answers. Then a load more pointless content. And then, right at the bottom, 50 screens down, the unobfuscated answers. This is no different - the content has been delivered, you are free to use it. – Moo Mar 15 at 23:30
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    @Greendrake yeah, I disagree with that, because every browser has the ability to turn CSS off, or replace the sites stylesheets with your own. CSS is not a security tool, and anyone arguing so should be laughed out of court and then laughed at some more. The site has already sent you the content, they just put some pretty styling around it that you, as owner of the browser, is fully and completely entitled to ignore. – Moo Mar 15 at 23:55
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    @Moo It's not really all that different from just doing ANYTHING illegal. You have means (ignoring CSS), motive (save money) and opportunity (their error) and violated their rights (copyright, by violating communicated license terms) intentionally (mems rea). – Patrick87 Mar 16 at 0:13

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