Can You Be Sued For Simply Watching An Illegal Video Stream?

Every single day millions of people watch video streams on the Internet, but while some streaming services provide authorized material, it's inevitable that others will offer illegal content too. So, when people click then watch a stream of unauthorized material online, are they committing an offense? According to an intriguing announcement this week, some illicit stream viewers may be about to find out.

While the Ultimate Fighting Championship is the absolutely pinnacle of excitement for some, to others its merely two almost-naked men rolling round the floor in a pool of sweat and blood trying to snap each others arms off. But whatever your take, read on, because something the UFC announced this week has the potential to touch everyone who consumes video online.

The UFC has a track record of aggressive anti-piracy action. They’ve threatened countless bars for showing both illicit streams and under-licensed deliveries of their events, and gone after numerous sites, their operators, and uploaders.

But for quite some time the MMA organization has threatened to expand its reach by going beyond suing those actually providing illegal streams to suing those who simply watch them. To be fair most observers thought this was just another of UFC president Dana White’s famous rants, but this week an interesting picture began to emerge.

UFC announced on Tuesday that parent company Zuffa LLC had successfully taken down a site called Greenfeedz which had illegally streamed a dozen UFC events. While there’s nothing particularly unusual about that, the UFC casually noted that they had also obtained the email addresses, user names and IP addresses of people who allegedly watched unauthorized streams.

So maybe the UFC are just throwing that out there to scare people a little? Apparently not. In an interview with MMA Junkie, UFC chief legal counsel Lawrence Epstein confirmed that the fight organization will be going after individuals who watched events dating back to May 2011, a number said to be potentially “voluminous.”

Who gets sued and who doesn’t is yet to be decided, with Epstein noting that the the UFC needs to “have the requisite proof” that individuals actually watched shows without paying. Nevertheless, the lawyer predicts that the Greenfeedz databases will provide lots of information including “names, emails, telephone numbers and sometimes even addresses to identify those people that are watching illegally.”

But according to First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza, it is not at all clear how the UFC will take action against those who simply watched illicit streams.

“I have a very hard time finding a theory of liability for someone who merely watched an illegal broadcast. That’s like saying if a bar was illegally publicly presenting a movie or an NFL game, that everyone in the bar would be liable,” Randazza told TorrentFreak.

“My guess is that the UFC’s attorneys will not really go after people who merely watched the fights. They may, however, use the data they gather in order to find out if any of those people were re-distributing it,” Randazza adds.

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