Is it legal to watch videos from file-sharing sites?

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Blinkbox and other streaming video services charge a small monthly fee for watching as much video as you like. But what about websites that offer the latest episodes for free? Here we explain what you need to know.

See also: How and where to watch the best TV shows and films online

Is it legal to stream videos from unofficial websites?

If you think about it, anyone uploading videos to the internet without permission from the owner is in breach of copyright. So TV shows and movies which you can stream from such sites are there illegally.

If you stream and watch these shows in this unofficial way, it's clearly not what the copyright holder would want, since they're not getting paid. Streaming illegal videos isn't going to land you in jail - or even court - but you could receive a warning letter from your ISP telling you that you are infringing copyright.

Under the Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme, which was introduced in May 2014, ISPs in the UK will send up to four such letters to 'infringers' identified by the copyright holders.

That's where things end, currently, but it's possible that your ISP may also threaten to cut off your internet access if you continue.

However, the warnings are usually issues to those using P2P software, such as BitTorrent clients. These work by uploading segments of the file while downloading other parts: this increases the download speed for everybody involved. Crucially, it means you're distributing illegal material rather than merely downloading it, which would be the case if you streamed a video via your web browser.

Don't forget that the copyright holder, having identified you by your IP address, may also send

What about YouTube?

Arguably you also shouldn't therefore watch episodes or films uploaded illegally to YouTube, but it can be tricky to know what's legal and what isn't. Looking at the users' name or profile information will usually tell you if the video is on an official channel or not, though.

See also: is it illegal to download YouTube videos?

Is it legal to use Popcorn Time?

This one's even more clear cut: Popcorn Time is essentially just a BitTorrent client with a glossy interface which looks a bit like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. Unlike most BT clients, Popcorn Time lets you browse movies using official artwork and click on the version you want to watch - 720p, 1080p etc. The film starts playing almost instantly, just like Netflix, but in the background the software is uploading parts of the film to other Popcorn Time users.

At least the makers of Popcorn Time are upfront about it, with a huge banner on its website saying, "Downloading copyrighted material may be illegal in your country. Use at your own risk."

Is it legal to watch videos from file-sharing sites?

Reasons to steer clear of file-sharing sites

Quite apart from the legal issues, you should steer clear of unofficial streaming sites to avoid ending up with malware on your computer. Adware and other unwanted software - potentially even viruses - can all be downloaded and installed without your knowledge or consent through so-called drive-by downloads.

We can't condone streaming or downloading videos from these sites. Our advice is to stick to the many places where you can watch films, TV shows and other videos legally online. TVcatchup.com is one place where you can watch live TV from a selection of free-to-air channels. Heading to those channels' websites - BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Quest - is a good place to find on-demand shows, too.

See also: Netflix vs Amazon Prime Instant Video