Many streaming services have some sort of geographical restrictions. Netflix, for example, locks certain content to areas the world. Hulu’s entire library, on the other hand, is only accessible to those in the U.S., or in certain overseas military bases.
Those who want to get around these restrictions often resort to using VPNs — or virtual private networks. Put simply, VPNs encrypt your connection, and depending on the location of the VPN server, can allow users in parts of the world locked by streaming services to bypass those geographical restrictions.
Of course, as with many other internet shortcuts, there’s the question of legality. Is accessing geoblocked Netflix content via a VPN illegal? Well, it’s a gray area. However, there are products available specifically to stream video overseas. See some of the best ones below:
Why Is Certain Content Geographically Locked?
Put simply, streaming services lock content geographically due to licensing laws. These services must license content in each individual region or country in which that content is streamed. Blocking access to content in certain parts of the world is how streaming services honor the licensing agreements wagered between them and content providers.
Additionally, due to various legal reasons, some movies, TV shows or other content cannot be licensed in some countries. Similarly, sometimes it’s an unnecessary cost and burden for streaming services to license movies or TV shows in regions where demand for that content is low — so, in many cases, they just don’t.
This might not be the case forever. Netflix, for example, seems to want to offer the same content to every user, regardless of geographical location — but the company did acknowledge that it’s probably a ways off.
“We have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere,” Netflix’s David Fullagar said in a statement. “Over time, we anticipate being able to do so. In the meantime, we will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location.”
And recently, streaming services have started to crack down on the use of VPNs. In January 2016, Netflix announced that it would start blocking VPNs — in an effort to appease the studios and networks that license the content to the provider in the first place, according to Wired.
Of course, not all VPNs have stopped working on those platforms. According to Inverse, this is largely because blocking every possible VPN would require a massive amount of resources — and it would run the risk of alienating users who are viewing TV shows or movies legitimately.
Addressing Copyright Concerns
While streaming services have their own set of rules that users must abide by, a country’s law is another matter entirely. The real question is: it actually a violation of a law to access Netflix or other streaming services through a VPN? Most countries have some sort of legal protection against copyright infringement, but whether those laws apply to this type of workaround is where it gets a bit tricky.
Firstly, it largely depends on where you are. If you’re, say, in Australia, and accessing U.S.-locked content, you’re probably okay.
“In relation to the use of VPNs by Australians to access services such as Hulu and Netflix, on the limited information provided there does not appear to be an infringement of copyright law in Australia,” a spokesperson for the country’s Attorney-General told The Australian.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., things get a bit trickier. In 2013, a ruling called Aaron’s Law was passed, and it amended portions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In simple terms, the law prohibits users from accessing information on a protected computer by “knowingly circumventing one or more technological or physical measures that are designed to exclude or prevent unauthorized individuals from obtaining that information.”
Now whether that law extends to copyright infringers and VPN users is a matter of legal interpretation. Luckily, as one Reddit user points out, the law specifically concerns individuals changing their IP address to access websites from which they’ve already been banned. Not exactly the same thing — though some lawyers might disagree.
There’s also the matter of borders. For those in other countries, most experts agree that U.S. law doesn’t technically apply to citizens and residents of other parts of the world. Having said that, in recent years, the U.S. Government has increasingly tried to assert that its copyright laws can apply to foreigners if their activities have ties to the U.S., according to nonprofit group Intellectual Property Watch.
On the other hand, some have argued that the fact that using Netflix in the first place requires a subscription makes allegations of copyright infringement void, even if a subscriber is accessing content using a VPN or other workaround. Put simply, you’re not stealing from Netflix as you’ve already paid the company to access content. Now, whether that argument would hold up in court is a matter of debate — so don’t take any legal advice from anyone who isn’t a lawyer.
So What’s the Verdict?
Still, as startup lawyer Dana H. Schultz points out, it probably won’t constitute any violation of copyright law — at least within the U.S. So while we can’t personally recommend using a VPN to get around geographical restrictions, if someone does do so, the worst that could probably happen is getting their streaming account blocked or terminated.
But really, how is “streaming” different from viewing content that you’ve downloaded onto your device in the U.S.? As we’ve mentioned, it’s a gray area. In our opinion, it’s worth risking your Netflix account to watch Game of Thrones anywhere and everywhere.