How Sketchy Streaming Sites Really Work - And Why Some Are Legal


game of thrones streaming

Image by Gus Lubin based on "Game Of Thrones" and streaming sites.


You don't need HBO to watch "Game Of Thrones." All you need to watch the most pirated show ever, or almost anything, is either to download it from a torrent site or Google "Game of Thrones streaming" and click one of the first links that comes up to watch it online.

Now, don't take that as an endorsement. These activities, especially streaming, can be illegal; risk exposure to viruses; and often involve poor quality, pop-up ads, and other annoyances.

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"It's too complicated for most people," Dan Rayburn, executive vice president for the streaming industry news site, told Business Insider. "With Netflix or whatever, you know what type of quality you're getting, what type of device [the content] plays on."

Yet millions of people still use these methods to watch live and recorded TV, whether to save money or time.


In a new Business Insider/Survey Monkey poll focused solely on streaming, 14% of people admitted to streaming unlicensed content. Of the respondents who didn't stream unlicensed content, 23% said it was because they didn't know how, and 32% said it was because they think it is illegal. See full poll results here »

But is streaming unlicensed content online illegal? Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond law school, told Business Insider that streaming online content breaks the law in two cases.

When the user downloads even part of a file - called "pseudo-streaming" - it counts as a copy of copyrighted material, which is illegal. And when the user streams content as a "public performance" - namely, when it's shown to a substantial number of people outside the normal family circle and its close acquaintances - it also constitutes a copyright violation.

Outside of these cases, accessing unlicensed streamed content is generally legal.

On the other side of the screen, however, uploading or posting unlicensed streamed content is illegal - even if it's free, according to Gibson. "That's the most basic part of copyright - protection of your work. When someone uploads a video online, they're literally making a copy," he said.


Online streaming sites may try to avoid trouble by not hosting their own content, instead acting as a search engine for links to streamed content, usually embedded from a secondary site. In that case, determining accountability requires the "inducement rule," a test created in a 2005 Supreme Court ruling which states that a company or website can only be held accountable for distributing unlicensed content if it clearly encourage users to infringe a copyright.

"It does very much depend on the marketing and the uses [these sites] are encouraging .... You know, GM can make a car. You can use it as a getaway car in a bank robbery, or you can use it to get work. So we don't say that GM is on the hook just because it provides a technology that can be used illegally," Gibson said. The same goes for streaming websites.

These secondary sites, however, where the content actually exists, do violate copyright law. But they're not usually as big as the primary sites, which aggregate unlicensed content. "If you have to choose your battles, you're more likely to go after the bottlenecks. They give you the most access to infringing content," Gibson said.

Just earlier this year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization took down, an illegal site streaming UFC fights live online, and seized its records. "Sites like that are shut down constantly," says Rayburn, the CEO of "It's not hard for law enforcement to find these sites. But it is hard to find out who's running them."

Still, many unlicensed online streaming sites continue to operate. Here's a diagram of how most of them work:


Streaming Infographic

Mike Nudelman/Business Insider

As for the experience of using an unofficial streaming site, let's see how someone might find FX's "American Horror Story" online. Instead of Googling "American Horror Story streaming," we'll go straight to ProjectFreeTV, a site we know, and search there.

Searching here will yield a bunch of links to embedded content, generally hosted on a separate site. Choose the link you want to watch, considering load time and any other factors. We picked season 3, episode 3.


The links will bring you to another screen with an embedded video. When you press play, the first website, in this case, ProjectFreeTV, requests the file from the second website,

From the time you type the website's name in the browser to the time you press play, three pop-ups as well as weird, sex banners interrupt the search. You'll also have to navigate the links carefully. Only the large, blue play button will start the video, while the others could take you to outside websites or even start downloading files or programs, which potentially contain viruses.

Finally, the server sends the episode directly to your computer, bypassing the ProjectFreeTV - potentially an important step for the site to avoid legal repercussions.

Of course, it might not play on your computer, since the original video file could require software that you don't have. And even if that works, video quality varies greatly.


Clearly, this isn't an ideal video watching experience. But as long as it's free and immediately available and there isn't a serious government crackdown, a growing number of Internet users will continue to choose this option.