YouTube can be addictive: you pop onto the website to watch one cat video and, seven hours later, you’ve fallen into a wormhole of obscure Rick Astley interviews and Bavarian yodelling. Meanwhile, the temptation is always there to permanently save a clip, or convert it to MP3, to enjoy at a later point. But is it actually legal to download YouTube videos in the UK?
The answer is “no… technically”. The Big Tech Question spoke to Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, to find out why there’s so much uncertainty.
“I think they would, in general, be infringing copyright, but there are times when you wouldn’t be,” Killock explained. “With streaming services, you don’t get the traditional right to record like you did with the radio. With radio and TV, there’s a thing called ‘time-shifting’, which says that you are allowed to record audio broadcasting and TV programmes and replay them later. You’re meant to destroy the copy later, but you are allowed to record. With downloading stuff from YouTube, that’s not applicable.”
So what are the exceptions? “There are some circumstances in which it would probably be alright. [For example] if you were going to create a parody of the thing. You’re in a grey area, but there’s no other way to create the parody than to download the original or have access to it.”
However, before we become Weird Al Yankovic to cover our YouTube tracks, Killock stresses that there’s not much to worry about if you occasionally download videos for personal use. “It’s practically impossible to enforce – unlike torrenting or sharing files,” he explained. “So, while it’s perhaps not right to do it, the risk is lower.”
Breaking the Ts&Cs
As you’d expect, the YouTube terms of service (a rip-roaring read, if you have a spare half an hour) are rather more forthright on the issue:
“You agree not to access Content for any reason other than your personal, non-commercial use solely as intended through and permitted by the normal functionality of the Service, and solely for Streaming. ‘Streaming’ means a contemporaneous digital transmission of the material by YouTube via the Internet to a user operated Internet enabled device in such a manner that the data is intended for real-time viewing and not intended to be downloaded (either permanently or temporarily), copied, stored, or redistributed by the user.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, the very next bullet point reads:
“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.”
In essence, if you download and then sell, say, Taylor Swift’s new single to your mates down the pub for 60p, you could end up in significant trouble. Fair enough, really. “If they’re selling access to files, they’re definitely going to get a knock on the door,” said Killock.
Legal ‘grey area’
However, you will have doubtless heard the “YouTube is a legal grey area” cliché bandied around online forums. To a certain extent, it’s true: some videos are eminently more “downloadable” than others. For example, works that are in the public domain and covered by a Creative Commons License or, as Jim Killock mentioned, intended as the basis of a parody.
The debate is further complicated by a letter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the “leading non-profit organisation defending civil liberties in the digital world”, to the United States Trade Representative (USTR). Sent on 16 October, the letter argues that certain YouTube-to-MP3 sites aren’t illegal: “Websites that simply allow users to extract the audio track from a user-selected online video are not ‘illegal sites’ and are not liable for copyright infringement, unless they engage in additional conduct that meets the definition of infringement.
“There exists a vast and growing volume of online video that is licensed for free downloading and modification, or contains audio tracks that are not subject to copyright.”
The EFF’s missive was released in response to a crackdown on conversion sites by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and is a high-profile case of the aforementioned “grey area”. In reality, though, it changes very little for potential downloaders in the UK.
That said, you’d have to be as unlucky as Hans Moleman to be prosecuted – or even told off – for downloading YouTube videos for personal use. (Although it’s worth noting that breaching YouTube’s Ts&Cs could lead to the suspension of your Google account, taking Gmail access with it.)
There are thousands of online tools and pieces of software that promise to make the process easy, but many are disreputable and may save more than just the video to your computer. That risk alone may be the best reason to avoid YouTube downloads.
Read next: How do you secretly read Facebook messages?
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