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What are the Penalties for Illegal Movie Downloads?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 16, 2024
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Downloading movies from the Internet without paying for them, whether through peer-to-peer sites, BitTorrent sites, or otherwise, is illegal in most countries as a violation of copyright law. Each country has its own copyright law or code, and while almost all prohibit movie downloads, the penalties countries assess can vary tremendously. The penalties for illegal movie downloads are usually a factor of national law, degree of offense, and judicial discretion.

The United States is widely recognized as having one of the toughest stances against Internet piracy and unauthorized movie downloads. U.S. copyright law provides for the award of either statutory or actual damages against people found guilty of illegally downloading. Statutory damages are damages that are set by statute, and awarded at the discretion of the judge. They are awarded according to a sliding scale, with a substantial minimum fine per violation. An actual damage award represents the damages that an aggrieved copyright owner actually sustained, which can be less or more than statutory damages, depending on the facts of the case.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and most of Europe have similar penalty schemes for illegal movie downloads, and the punishments allowed in these countries are in many ways comparable to those permitted in the United States. Still, in all places, the consequences factor in several things. What a country’s copyright law says about downloading penalties is the first element. The specific facts of the case, including whether the downloading was one time only or part of a pattern will also usually be influential. A country’s stance on copyright infringement and the culturally acceptable norms surrounding the acceptability of downloading can be a factor as well.

Lawsuits involving illegal movie downloads have to be brought by a party who has been harmed by the downloading. Most of the time, this is the movie production studio or another entity that owns the rights to the film that has been downloaded. The jurisdiction of the lawsuit is determined by the downloader’s location, however. A downloader can only be sued for infringement in the country where the downloads took place.

Most lawsuits related to illegal downloads are launched by U.S.-based motion picture companies or associations. When these companies or associations sue U.S. residents, U.S. laws apply. These laws do not apply to suits against those in any other country, however, even if the suits are brought by U.S. companies.

The motion picture industry has used lawsuits and the threat of litigation as one of its main strategies to preventing illegal movie downloads. This campaign has been largely successful in the United States, Canada, Europe, and other places where the penalties are steep and enforced. In smaller, less developed countries, it can be much more difficult to launch a successful lawsuit based on video copyright laws. A big part of how penalties are assessed is based on how courts interpret and apply the laws. Just because a law says that penalties can be applied does not necessarily mean that a maximum penalty, or even a penalty at all, will actually be assessed.

Countries like China and many Eastern European nations are frequently regarded as havens for illegal downloading because, while these countries have copyright laws, they are rarely enforced. Countries without developed legal systems also pose challenges for copyright owners seeking to enforce their rights. The consequences of illegal actions in these kinds of places are often minimal, even if written law would indicate otherwise.

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Discussion Comments

By anon984332 — On Jan 07, 2015

Calling people who download movies derogatory names like "thieves" and "pirates" is cruel and insensitive. Just as undocumented immigrants have their rights, many of these downloaders are simply "unpaid licensees". They legitimately have the right to watch the movies; they just haven't paid the oppressive copyright holders.

Many of the unpaid licensees were probably born into it and know no other way. They're just looking for a better deal on entertainment than their parents and grandparents had. Can we please bring a sense of political correctness to this discussion? I call for amnesty for unpaid licensees!

By anon941215 — On Mar 21, 2014

@MrSmirnov: It is not theft because theft requires the taking of an object with both mass and space and intellectual copyright has neither. It is copyright infringement. A separate issue.

By anon930438 — On Feb 05, 2014

Can I download movie from services like rapidshare, etc. in Australia? I know that is hard to download torrents here but what about those services? Is it easier and less controlled?

By anon342527 — On Jul 22, 2013

How exactly am I costing them money, though? I'm poor. If I couldn't download things I couldn't afford them. Most of the country's money is controlled by lazy billionaires. How is it fair that the government prints a certain amount of money but rich people get most of it? And yes you can say they earn it and all, but does anyone really have the right to billions of dollars when we still have homeless people and starving children?

There is more than enough money to go around. We should all have a basic amount and then we can earn more from that, but welfare services are failing to provide this. The movie industry doesn't deserve such a big slice of the cake.

By MrSmirnov — On May 06, 2011

Downloading movies illegally is theft, and I believe it should be treated as such. Damages should be collected by the studios and penalties enforced.

Does anyone believe that a sense of entitlement should really override the law of a country?

By animegal — On May 04, 2011

I think that studios should do more in good faith to promote affordable downloads. Just digging in their heels and charging high rates for 'legal' materials and using scare tactics to prevent downloads is not winning them much support with the younger crowd.

I would happily pay $4.99 to purchase a movie in digital format that is past its theatre prime. But $19.99 for a digital download is ridiculous. They need to make them cheaper than rentals and faster, as well as safer than illegal downloads for them to really take over the download market.

By manykitties2 — On May 03, 2011

In China you can easily find illegally downloaded movies reproduced and sold in the markets. In fact, many places in Asia tend to look the other way when this is happening.

While I agree that illegal downloading is a questionable practice, and selling the material is even worse, the penalties in North America are a bit harsh for teens and kids downloading movies.

Fining a teen thousands of dollars for downloading a movie that no one wanted to see anyway is crazy. Does anyone else think there needs to be a revamping of our copyright laws and the penalties for breaking them?

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