Many online users protect their identity and privacy on the internet by using a Virtual Private Network. The VPN provides anonymity by cloaking the user’s IP address and re-routing their data through one of the thousands of servers located across the world. At the same time, data is encrypted within a secure digital ‘tunnel’ to prevent any access to it.
By downloading a piece of VPN software onto a device, any user can be online without any risk of being seen by spies, snoopers, hackers or other bodies who are attempting to see or steal personal user data.
But do VPNs infringe copyright? This issue is a hot topic that has already made its way to courts around the world. The issue is that VPNs can be used to access and share copyright material, for example:
- If the VPN user is masking their true location by using a server abroad that allows them to access geo-blocked content. An example of this would be a user from the UK using a US server to access Netflix USA.
- If a VPN user is masking their identity in order to share or download copyright content via a torrent. Many torrent users use a VPN, and although torrents themselves aren’t illegal, they can be used to access pirated and copyrighted content.
So when asking do VPNs infringe copyright, we need to assess the arguments for and against.
Realistically, although copyright owners are heavily pushing for content services (such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime) to ensure that they are enforcing licensing rules by location, lawyers say that the law around geoblocking – or the use of a VPN – is unclear.
Do VPNs infringe copyright? What the law says
There is currently nothing that legally says geo-blocking is copyright infringement. The use of geo-blocking makes it nigh on impossible for content services to enforce geographic copyright and license laws.
The approach taken by content services
It’s notable, for example, that Netflix has said that it plans to be more active in identifying and blocking VPN services – but it hasn’t claimed that VPNs themselves infringe copyrights.
Paypal has said that it doesn’t allow its service to be used for payments that infringe copyrights. Furthermore, it has added that it does see that services designed to get around geo-restrictions as unlawful in that they facilitate copyright infringement. Paypal has said that it supports services that operate in a legal capacity and do not market themselves as services that can be used to violate copyrights. Bad news for VPN providers.
Why the legal ambiguity?
One issue is that content streaming services such as Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu don’t let users download permanent content copies. Instead, they are streaming services – so it is as yet uncertain from a legal perspective, whether copyrights are really being infringed. The circumnavigation of geo-blocking is simply a means to see the content (having paid for subscription), rather than possess it.
In the case of torrenting, the situation is different, but even so, a VPN merely hides the user’s identity rather than facilitates the file transfer.
Furthermore, VPN services have lots of different uses that don’t relate to copyright agreements in any way.
Confused? So is the industry! Even US lawyers have confirmed that the law about geo-blocking avoidance and content streaming is currently unclear when it comes to copyright infringement.
VPNs and location hiding
It is hard to know how many VPN users mask their IP addresses to get around geo-blocking. As a case study, Netflix can be subscribed to across the world, but not all users will see the same content in their country. So Netflix users have an incentive to mask their IP address in order to see content in other countries on the service – such as in the USA which has the biggest library.
The same applies to BBC iPlayer, for example, with a study suggesting that around 60 million viewers have seen iPlayer content in countries other than the UK, which the BBC has said isn’t “plausible.”
What’s happening in the UK?
However, lawyers in the UK believe that the use of a VPN to get around geo-blocking would likely be viewed as infringement of copyright where content was being streamed. This, they say, would potentially be seen as tantamount to the reproduction of copyright-protected work – even where content isn’t being downloaded permanently, the images are being reproduced while being viewed on the device screen.
A legitimate customer of a content streaming service such as Netflix buys a license to see content that is made available in their country in return for the subscription. By getting around the geographical limitations using a VPN, the terms are violated and the license is not in place.
The world is changing
So, do VPNs infringe copyright? The debate is continuing and it looks as though a clear answer is unlikely to be reached at any time in the near future. Many industry analysts believe that there is very unlikely to be a time when the law goes after individuals who have signed up for a VPN service. At least in the West.
Stay safe, surfers!
And the fact is, even if lawyers, ISPs or content providers did want to get hold of people using a VPN to see content that had been blocked in their country, they wouldn’t be able to! Why? Because the best VPNs completely block all user information and keep no user logs; meaning that their customers are completely private and secure when they surf the net, regardless of what they are doing!
Mikaela is an investigative journalist that likes to cover the ever-changing world of technology. She tries to keep her finger on the pulse of digital trends and share her insights on the most relevant topics, including big tech, security, privacy, and data breaches.