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This question is propted by this one. The answers seems to assume that youtube has a valid licence to distribute the work. What if that is not the case? Is it illegal to watch/listen to a video that is obviously distributed without a licence?

Somewhat famously the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), a British music industry trade group, claimed that home taping was illegal:

Home Taping Is Killing Music logo

A standard fact pattern of home taping would be Alice buys a record, and allows Bob to make a recording of that record. Alice does not have distribution rights, therefore Bob is breaking the law by making an unauthorised copy.

If one uses youtube to listen to music that is 1 to 5 decades old ones "youtube stream" will be dominated by music that appears to be almost exclusively uploaded without the rights holders permission. Most obviously the "mixes" tend to have very low production values with respect to the transitions and the graphics while playing very high profile songs. This would appear exactly analogous to home taping, in that one is receiving and making a copy of a work that the providing party does not have distribution rights to. In the US youtube would be protected by section 230, and I think the UK has similar notice and takedown provisions in their intermediary liability laws but I do not think the user would have such protection.

Given that a work is uploaded to youtube without an appropriate licence, and the user believes correctly that this is the case, is viewing that work on youtube illegal? I am particularly interested in the UK, because of the fame of the "Home Taping Is Killing Music" claim, but other jurisdictions would be interesting.

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  • About the home taping: What happened among the people I knew who did it, they were not saving any money. They spent as much as they could afford, but got more benefits from it. If home taping had been impossible, then they wouldn't have spent more on music, because they couldn't. They might actually have spent less because "value for money" was less good. Nowadays you could copy tens of thousands of music files from my hard drive if I let you, and that's a totally different matter.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 7, 2022 at 12:32

2 Answers 2

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Theoretically it is illegal in the . The European Court of Justice ruled on this matter in 2017 (case C-527/15). They ruled that users who watch media online do act illegally if it should be obvious to them that the distribution of the work is not sanctioned by the copyright owner.

However, in practice these users are very rarely persecuted. The reason is that in order to sue someone, one has to explain to the court what financial damages they had due to the behavior of the defendant. In this case, each individual user could at most be sued for what they would have paid if they had consumed the work legally. So at most the cost of a cinema ticket or DVD or the cost for a licensed streaming service subscription. That's just not worth it.

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The uploader could be sued

However, it is absolutely awful PR and in the early 20th century when those notices were created and record and film companies actually sued kids, they found out just how bad the PR was notwithstanding their legal right to do so.

So, since then, they just get the infringement taken down and don’t kill their brand by taking 13 year olds to court.

The downloader is an innocent infringer and while this is illegal, damages are so limited as to be uneconomic.

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  • oooor they just siphon the funds from the video due to the copyright claim.
    – Trish
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:45
  • @Trish they’d still have to sue and cop the bad PR
    – Dale M
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:51
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    not with how Youtube handles monetisation.
    – Trish
    Oct 8, 2022 at 11:24
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    @Trish "siphon" has a more negative connotation than I would ascribe to the distribution of revenue connected to a sound recording to the owner of the rights in the recording. The main problem I have with YouTube's system is how the automated process often misidentifies sound recordings. I've seen live performances of baroque music tagged with studio album references, meaning that the performers are being deprived of revenue that's rightfully theirs.
    – phoog
    Oct 8, 2022 at 14:42
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    @phoog and that's why I said siphon: there have been countless cases of misidentification, misdirected monetization for fair-use videos, and deliberate misrepresentations to get monetization from videos where not even copyright owned by the monetizing party existed - and then there are also cases where the uploader never knew the video was monetized at all. Atop that, YT does not have any ability to share monetization on its own, e.g. a collab between a composer and an animator for a video would give all revenue to one, who then would have to distribute...
    – Trish
    Oct 8, 2022 at 14:54

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