Entertainment Technology Explained

Is It Legal to Download YouTube Videos?

Dan Price 06-06-2019

Lots of people use third-party tools to download YouTube videos—but is it legal to do so?

Sometimes, the case is clear cut (for example, downloading TV shows or music videos is illegal), but what about other types of content? Is it always illegal to download YouTube videos, or are there occasions when you’re allowed to do so?

Let’s take a closer look at the legality of downloading YouTube videos.

What Does YouTube Say?

It’s essential to differentiate the two sides of the question. On the one hand, there’s the question of how YouTube views the situation. On the other, there are the national laws of the country in which the downloading is taking place.

So, we’ll start with YouTube. When you watch a video on YouTube, you agree to abide by the company’s terms.

Here’s the important part of YouTube’s Terms of Service:

“You shall not download any content unless you see a ‘download’ or similar link displayed by YouTube on the Service for that content. You shall not copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, broadcast, display, sell, license, or otherwise exploit any content for any other purposes without the prior written consent of YouTube or the respective licensors of the content.”

There’s no room for interpretation; YouTube explicitly forbids you from downloading videos.

Can YouTube Ban You for Downloading Videos?

If you contravene the Terms of Service, YouTube has a range of legal options available to it. Theoretically, everything from a ban to a civil lawsuit could be on the table.

That said, YouTube has never sued anyone for downloading content. Several years ago, the company did consider suing one of the largest YouTube video downloaders (YouTube-MP3.org) for breach of the Terms of Service but backed down after the site refused to budge.

Interestingly, YouTube-MP3.org eventually shut down in 2017 after Sony Music and Warner Bros launched a copyright infringement lawsuit against it.

Is Downloading YouTube Videos Against the Law?

youtube downloader

We’ve learned that YouTube doesn’t like video downloaders, even if it may be happy to turn a blind eye to them for now. But what about the law? Are you committing a crime if you download a video from YouTube?

As is often the way—it depends. Let’s look at how US law views the downloading of YouTube videos.

When Is Downloading YouTube Videos Illegal?

In the United States, copyright law dictates that it is illegal to make a copy of content if you do not have the permission of the copyright owner.

That applies to both copies for personal use and to copies which you either distribute or financially benefit from.

As such, downloading TV series, movies, sports clips, or any other copyrighted content on YouTube is breaking the law. It puts you at risk of facing a criminal trial. The situation is the same across the UK and the European Union.

In practice, the chance of facing a criminal lawsuit—especially as an individual—is extraordinarily slim, but you are breaking the law regardless.

When Is Downloading YouTube Videos Legal?

We’ve established that downloading video means you’re always breaching YouTube’s terms. We also know that if you download copyrighted content, you’re breaking the law. But are there any times when it’s legal to download YouTube videos?

Yes! You can use third-party YouTube downloaders to download videos for which the copyright laws do not apply or videos for which the copyright grants you a right to reproduce the video.

There are a few different types of videos you can legally download on YouTube:

With a bit of digging on YouTube, you can find lots of videos that fall under one of the above categories. Remember, downloading the videos will still break YouTube’s Terms of Service, but will not constitute a criminal act.

The Moral Argument

Of course, there’s also a moral question surrounding the process of downloading YouTube videos.

In much the same way that sites like MakeUseOf rely on ads to keep providing readers with free content, many YouTube personalities live off their channel revenues.

By downloading the video and sharing it with friends offline, you deny the creator clicks, and by extension, reduce their income. In an extreme situation, the creator could sue for loss of earnings.

Are the Authorities Fighting a Losing Battle?

A quick look at any search engine will reveal a bevy of sites, tools, and apps which let you download YouTube videos.

It’s probably why we’ve not heard from YouTube about any new lawsuits against the tools’ operators. It appears that the company has decided that the difficulty of creating legally watertight cases against the sites is more trouble than it’s worth.

Anecdotal evidence even suggests many of the YouTube downloader sites are being allowed to run Google Ads. Perhaps Alphabet is more concerned with monetizing those sites’ vast traffic than penalizing them.

As was the case with piracy in the 2000s, the whole thing is developing into a game of whack-a-mole between the apps/sites/tools and TV networks and record labels. As soon as one site is forced offline, a dozen new offerings pop up in its place.

Is It Legal to Download YouTube Videos?

Let’s recap what we’ve learned:

  • Downloading videos from YouTube is in breach of YouTube’s Terms of Service, and the company could sue you.
  • YouTube has shown no desire to penalize users for downloading videos.
  • Downloading copyrighted videos without permission is a criminal act.
  • Some videos with the correct licenses are legal to download from a criminal standpoint.

If you’re particularly concerned about the issue of copyrights, check out our articles explaining how to copyright your photos How to Copyright Your Photos (And Why You Should) Taken a photo, shared it online, and found it on someone else's website? It's time to learn how to copyright your photos. Read More and how to handle copyright infringement notices from your ISP How to Handle a Copyright Infringement Notice From Your ISP Received a copyright infringement notice from your ISP but don't know why? Here's what you need to do next. Read More .

Related topics: Law, Legal Issues, Online Video, YouTube.

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  1. Ed Caver
    August 6, 2020 at 5:01 am

    So if I download a video that another private party recorded and posted to YouTube, do I need to get permission to download it to my website for display? Would that permission have to come from the original poster or from Youtube or both? Does it matter if the website is for profit?

  2. Jonathan
    March 22, 2020 at 12:22 am

    I have a script that downloads all videos in my "liked" playlist. I started this because a lot of videos I liked ended up getting removed, and I don't even know what they were. There's just "removed' placeholders scattered through my liked videos.

  3. TimppaLo
    November 15, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    I'm not sure about other EU countries, but atleast in Finland it's 100% legal to make a copy for personal use, basicly of anything. No matter if it's a movie or an audio cd from the library, it is legally allowed to be copied for personal use. And to be precise, "personal use" includes here also the case where you make the copy for example for your family member.

  4. Mike
    June 27, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    IANALawyer, but I believe your law references are misinterpreted, because you seem to have a flawed understanding of how videos are even viewed in the first place.

    Approximately zero of the famous RIAA/MPAA lawsuits of the 2000s, regarding music and film sharing over filesharing apps, actually went to court and were nothing but empty threats (convincing to some people, but no less just threats). Ask the EFF if you don't believe me.

    I don't think you can definitively prove that the person doing the downloading is doing the copying -- the site is /definitively/ doing the copying. That is literally, non-figuratively, the /actual/ function of the site.

    Also, watching YouTube videos IS downloading. The very nature of browsing the web is, itself, downloading a copy of the site to your computer's cache and viewing the copied file on your own machine.

    The pivotal interpretation is that the /uploader/ is the copying party, meaning that Youtube is the one doing the copying, not the user who requests to be sent the copy.

    If videos were illegal to download from Youtube, you could not watch videos on YouTube, because watching them IS downloading them, even when viewing them on the actual YouTube site. The video data literally, non-figuratively, travels from YouTube to your computer/device when the video plays, so that you are watching the video from the device itself, rather than as if looking thru a telescope to a video being played elsewhere. The act of actually watching the video on its YT page, requires downloading it. Your computer downloaded the page, all of the images, and the text of THIS comment, and you are viewing that copy of that data on your device right now. That is how the internet itself functions at the fundamental level.

  5. jerry berry
    June 8, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    There is No content displayed in your browser that hasn't Already Been downloaded to your storage drive. Period. This is by design- design of the browser coders, And the content distributors. When content is Published on www via http it is the distributors' obvious intent that those files are to be downloaded to viewers' storage drives. What is the legal perspective to having those files in my User directories versus my Browser Cache? EH?
    Am I Legally Obliged Under Criminal Penalty to Delete the files from my Cache?

  6. Davin Peterson
    June 6, 2019 at 11:18 pm

    There are many online downloaders, software programs, and Windows 10 apps that all you to download YouTube Audio or Video.

    It appears YouTube doesn't have any interest in shutting them down.