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You may have a friend or in-law who’s always bragging about watching sports, movies, and other TV content while paying very low subscription fees or virtually nothing (perhaps coupled with a VPN service for anonymity).
Rather than getting the content from cable, satellite TV, or the old-fashioned way—with an over-the-air antenna—they’ve likely found a streaming service using the internet protocol.
This way of streaming your TV over the net is called Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV. So are they allowed to do this? And what could be illegal about it?
Well, as it turns out, there are several flavors of IPTV, and many of them are just as legal as satellite or cable.
So back to the question. Is IPTV illegal? In and of itself, no, it’s not. Can IPTV be used illegally? You bet it can.
- What is IPTV?
- Is IPTV Legal to Use?
- Illegal Subscriptions to IPTV
- How To Tell If an IPTV Service Is Illegal
- What Is Kodi?
- How To Find Legal IPTV Providers
- Watching (Illegal) IPTV in the USA
- Final Thoughts
What is IPTV?
Simply put, IPTV is TV content streamed over the internet. There are some basic differences between IP TV and broadcast TV that comes via cable, satellite, or antenna.
Now your TV surely knows what to do with signals that are broadcast over the air. But IPTV consists of a digital stream intended for a computer. You can watch IPTV channels on your laptop or (if you don’t mind a small picture) on your phone, but you probably prefer the large, clear picture available on your television set.
Using IPTV with Your TV
Most TVs aren’t able to interpret an IPTV stream all by themselves. They need help.
To display IPTV on your television, you need a set-top box with an internet connection that translates the computer signal into something your TV knows how to deal with.
Alternately, you can use a dongle such as Roku or the Amazon Fire TV Stick that plugs into an HDMI outlet on your set (make sure you have one) and does the interpreting. Some TVs now come with Roku built right in.
Another difference: broadcast TV is live and comes to your set at a specific time. If your favorite show is on 8:00 PM on Wednesday, then you’ll have to make sure to watch it (or capture it to watch later).
IPTV also provides live TV, but additionally it offers a library of shows where you can pick and choose what you want to watch and when you want to watch it.
IPTV vs. OTT
If this sounds a lot like Netflix or Amazon Prime, they’re close but not quite the same thing. Netflix is an Over-the-Top (OTT) service that comes to you over the public net.
With IPTV, the provider manages both the network infrastructure and IPTV services that deliver the programming.
Some people consider OTT to be a type of IPTV, but for this discussion I’m going to make a distinction.
IPTV includes reputable cable alternatives and services like Sling TV, Fubo TV, and AT&T TV, and also includes less well-known services that lurk in the net and may or may not be above board.
Here’s some more information about what IPTV is and isn’t.
Is IPTV Legal to Use?
To get right down to it, yes. What’s illegal is infringing on copyright laws.
When HBO produces a movie, they own that movie. They have the right to determine who can see it, under what circumstances, and how much a viewer should pay. It’s their product after all, and they’re entitled to compensation.
When someone sells or gives away HBO content, and that party doesn’t own the copyright content and doesn’t have a license to distribute it, that’s copyright infringement. HBO can come after that party with a lawsuit and collect damages.
When you watch those TV channels, it may be copyright infringement as well, but that’s more of a gray area that I’ll get into later in the article.
Illegal Subscriptions to IPTV
If you’ve signed up with a visible, widely advertised IPTV service and you’re paying a subscription fee on the credit card that’s competitive with cable or perhaps not, it’s almost certain your services are legal.
If you found a “too good to be true” deal on a site like Reddit that learned about from a friend of a friend, you should take a closer look at whether it’s illegal IPTV you’re watching.
Now, cheap or free doesn’t necessarily mean those are illegal services. Most valid IPTV service providers offer free trials or low introductory prices for cord cutters. But know that many of these IPTV services won’t be a few bucks a month indefinitely.
Some Free and Legal IPTV Services
Here are a few free IPTV legal websites such as:
How To Tell If an IPTV Service Is Illegal
Here are some other signs that you might be getting your television content from some illegal services:
1. IPTV Content That is Proprietary
Legit IPTV subscriptions may have TV shows that originally belonged to other TV networks, and movies that have been in the theater. They’ve purchased or licensed these properly, and probably adhere to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and others.
What they won’t have is the proprietary contents of other services, such as Netflix movies that were made just for Netflix. If you see one of these on another service, they’re probably pirated and being shown illegally.
2. IPTV Services With Low Display Quality
Poor video or audio quality is a red flag. If your IPTV programs don’t get the crispness and clarity that the show should have, it may not be a legal steam.
3. IPTV Services With Lots of Buffering
If you’re using IPTV that’s lacks speed and is frequently buffering, that’s a warning of illegality. Sometimes the provider will copy all or part of IPTV streams or video content into a cache at your setup.
This technically makes you a downloader of illegal shows through your internet connection, which, as I’ll discuss later, can be more problematic for you than simply viewing it.
4. How They’re Delivering
Legal IPTV servers use one of two common platforms for data: a centralized architecture or a distributed architecture. You can sometimes find details on the architecture on the IPTV services website, or you can open the contact form or run a search query.
An illegal IPTV service will sometime deliver shows that stream at the “wrong” time to the end user. For example, showtime schedule for the rightful channel might be at 7:00 on Sunday evening, but the illegal streamer might air it to end users later that night or in the week.
5. All That Glitters Isn’t Gold
Another point: just because an IPTV service has a lot of “bells and whistles,” it doesn’t mean they’re legit. Some illegal developers provide apps for multiple devices, with a slick interface with a TV guide that looks like the real thing.
Another sign of copyright-infringing IPTV is plugs-ins to apps like Kodi.
What Is Kodi?
Kodi is a free app that runs on any kind of device with a browser, including Smart TV receivers and many types of TV box with an IP address.
It provides the capability of a set-top box. But it’s more than that: there’s virtually no limit on what you can stream, where you can stream it from, or what you can stream it to.
It works with all major operating systems and many different devices. You can even install it on the Amazon Fire TV Stick (but not on Roku.)
Its website calls it the “ultimate entertainment center.” It’s well supported and constantly updated.
The Kodi platform started life as the Xbox media player, but it’s grown way past that. It has a ten-foot range and works with most remotes.
Using Kodi isn’t only for TV shows and movies, but also for music and photos. Kodi has a worldwide community and a huge assortment of add-ins that enhance its capability and provide access to different TV streams.
It’s with the plugins where a copyright violation might happen.
The Legality of Using Kodi
It’s not like there’s any Kodi police. In fact, consumers don’t need permission to add any Kodi plug-in. Most of these are just fine to use, but might be illegal. A Kodi device with illegal plugs-ins is sometimes called a “fully loaded Kodi.”
Kodi plug-ins like Exodus are illegal even before they do illegal streaming, because the courts have ruled that a device that merely encourages users to infringe on a copyright is in and of itself infringement.
If you’re not sure it’s illegal streaming that’s coming through your Kodi, think about the points I discussed above. Is it a provider you’ve heard of? Is it too cheap to be true? Does the show look like it belongs to someone else? Are there quality issues in the broadcasting?
Kodi Learning Curve
If you’re new to IPTV and looking to view movies or shows as quickly and easily as possible, Kodi may not be for you. Like much software and many an application with great capabilities, it has a significant learning curve.
While there are Wikis, user guides, and the user community, it takes some technical savvy to set Kodi up and get what you want out of it.
How To Find Legal IPTV Providers
Maybe you’ve been thinking about saving some money by cutting the cable cord and replacing it with an IPTV provider. If you’ve looked into the legal streamers, you know there’s many an option.
You also know there are overlaps and differences in what they offer.
All of them require broadband internet access, so you need to factor that into the price. In fact, many choose to stay with their current cable company for internet service, while replacing their shows with IPTV streaming services.
Below’s a list of some of the better ones. All of these are easy to sign up for and many offer low introductory prices. Monthly fees are as low as $20 and can run over $100 for a “Cadillac” service. There’s even some limited services that are free.
One caveat: this is an industry that’s constantly changing. Providers enter, drop out, and merge with one another. What’s true of their services today may be different six months from now.
Be sure to check the provider’s website for the most up-to-date information.
- Hulu Live TV. Hulu is mostly known for their OTT service that specializes in videos on demand, but they also offer a second service with live streaming. It features over 50 channels including ESPN and Fox Sports and offers STARZ as an add-on.
- AT&T TV. It comes with several options, from barebones to an Ultimate Plan that gives customers the ability to view just about everything. It can be the most expensive alternative depending on how you configure it.
- Philo. Philo has low costs and is great for viewers who don’t need a lot. If you’re looking to find out what IPTV is all about, it’s a good place to start. It does have about 60 channels including movie categories and the Food Network.
- Sling TV. Sling offers an Orange and a Blue package. Orange emphasizes sports, including local sports networks. You can buy both for less than the combined cost of each separately.
- Fubo TV. Fubo’s prices are on the high side, but you get a lot for what you pay. The top package has over 100 channels including sports and also global programming.
- Haystack TV. Haystack offers free streaming of a large number of news channels. It’s not going to replace your cable selection, but if you’re a news junkie, or if you want to add news to whatever other service you buy, Haystack is worth a look.
- YouTube TV. YouTube is best known for their ubiquitous video clips, but now they’ve jumped into the streaming IPTV market. They’re a solid choice with prices and services in the middle of the pack.
- Pluto TV. Like Haystck, Pluto is a free service. As you might expect for that price, the shows are rather limited. But they do have 100 channels plus an on-demand service. You can start out with it to learn what IPTV is all about, or you can add it to your other choice(s) to get a little bit more for no extra cost.
- Disney+. This is more of an OTT service than live streaming IPTV, but it’s worth a mention. It has a large collection of Disney movies and shows on demand. It’s also offered as part of a package with ESPN+, which it also owns, and Hulu.
Even with the fees that legal IPTV providers charge, it’s not too hard to find one, or a combination of IPTV and OTT providers, that will give you the shows you want and reduce what you spend to watch TV.
All you need is a set-top box or a stick, and you’re good to go. You might even try out one of the inexpensive or free ones alongside your cable or satellite signal while you’re deciding whether to take the next step and cut the cable cord entirely.
Watching (Illegal) IPTV in the USA
If you choose to watch illegal IPTV, no one’s going to stop you from getting set up, and it’s unlikely anyone will stop you from watching. However, there are several risks, reasons why it’s a questionable practice:
1. If your internet service provider (ISP) catches you at it, they can reduce your service level or cut you off entirely. In general your ISP can see what sources you’re downloading from. There’s no certainty they’re going to actually look at your account, but they have incentives to fight internet piracy and it’s something they can do if needed.
2. Service can be unreliable. Sometimes there’s so much buffering that services are unwatchable. Picture and audio quality may be poor.
If it’s a popular program—say a major sports event—the influx of viewers at kickoff can overload pirate systems. The show might disappear midstream. You never know if your service is going to be there tomorrow.
3. You could lose money. Most people choose illegal IPTV because it’s free or cheap. If there’s a monthly fee, it’s much less than for an on-the-level service. But a lot of fly-by-night providers will try to get you to sign up for more than one month.
And you may never get what you paid for. They may disappear, or they may just decide not to provide what they promised. After all, if they’re willing to cheat the content providers, why wouldn’t they hesitate to cheat you?
4. Viruses and malware are a threat. It’s the internet, and not the well-lit side of the internet street at that. Legitimate IPTV providers put a lot of effort into keeping their systems free of these kinds of problems. Illegal outfits may not have the same level of concern.
5. Illegal IPTV is, well, illegal. You could find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.
Are You Going To Get in Trouble for Watching Illegal IPTV?
It’s true that law enforcement and the content companies are a lot more interested in the providers than in you. It’s also true that there are thousands, maybe millions, of illegal IPTV viewers out there, and any specific one is unlikely to get caught.
Some people will tell you it’s only providing streaming services that’s illegal, and not viewing it. This is where there’s a gray area that hasn’t been settled.
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not trying to give you legal advice. But here are a few comments based on general knowledge:
Not only is it illegal to provide services that infringe on a copyright, but it’s also illegal to download it. Does that mean if you’re just streaming but never download you’re in the clear?
Not necessarily. After all, your content doesn’t come to you in a steady stream like water from a spigot. If there’s buffering, then content is, at least temporarily, downloaded.
Now there’s a philosophy that if content is on your computer for only a brief period, you don’t actually possess it. But no one’s ever determined what that length of time is.
In conclusion, you’re probably safe from prosecution and lawsuits, at least for now. After all, a lot of people are doing it, and it’s tough to go after everyone.
But remember what happened back in the days of music sharing. The copyright owners picked a few offenders, more or less at random, and won large lawsuits against them to set examples of them. They didn’t have to go after everyone to put a damper on the practice.
I’m pretty confident you’re not going to get thrown in the hoosegow for watching illegal IPTV, but, if you’re streaming this material, you might want to start moving toward the sunny, legal side of the IPTV street.