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?
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?
? Lesson learned: If you try to do a good thing and upload your conference's videos as Creative Commons to YouTube, a bunch of "education companies" will download the video, re-upload it in worse quality, and monetize it.
Looking at you, @CodingTech. Legal, but not cool.
— Felix Rieseberg (@felixrieseberg) February 5, 2019
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:
- Public domain: Public domain works occur when the copyright has expired, been forfeited, been waived, or been inapplicable from the start. No one “owns” the video, meaning members of the public can reproduce and distribute the content freely.
- Creative Commons: Creative Commons applies to works for which the artist has retained copyright but has given the public permission to reproduce and distribute the work.
- Copyleft: Copyleft grants anyone the right to reproduce, distribute, and modify the work, as long as the same rights apply to derivative content. Read our article explaining copyright vs. copyleft if you would like to learn more.
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 and how to handle copyright infringement notices from your ISP.