How to Tell If a Streaming Movie Website Is Legal

These clues will tell you if you're watching movies at a legal website

What to Know

  • Illegal movie websites are everywhere; there are several clues on their sites that can help you avoid getting into trouble.
  • The biggest offenders tend to encourage the use of VPN services, proxies, and other ways to hide your IP address. 
  • Watch for DMCA takedown request notices, copyrighted or illegal content disclaimers, pop-ups, and 'click me' ads.

If you've found a free streaming movie website and you want to know if they're showing their movies legally, there are a few things you can look for. This doesn't completely determine if the website isn't pirating content, but they are big clues on whether you should stay and watch or tune to another virtual channel.

They Don't Try to Cover Their Tracks

Websites that stream illegal movies protected by copyrights often advertise VPN services, proxies, and other ways to hide your IP address from governments and internet service providers. This is a clear indication that they're not operating within the law.

If a movie streaming website you're on asks you to download their VPN software or to subscribe to a third-party VPN service, it's best to exit right now. There are so many free ways to get movies that it's not worth it to pay just to protect yourself from getting caught streaming newer movies.

Warning download only with VPN message

Another way illegal movie streaming sites try to cover their tracks is by posting information about DMCA takedown requests. If they have a whole section of their website dedicated to contacting them when an illegal movie is available on their site, chances are they don't have an official partnership with any company to stream movies legally.

Yet another clue that distinguishes a legal movie site from an illegal one is whether it makes a point to disclaim that they are without fault if a copyrighted video is found there. Here's an example of such a message on an illegal movie site:

  • Disclaimer: No copyrighted or illegal content is hosted on this website. All content is hosted on non-affiliated third-party websites.

They Tell You Where They're Getting Their Movies

Legitimate free online movie websites get their films one of two ways: either they have permission from the film studio to show the movies, or they're showing movies that fall under public domain.

Sometimes, a film studio or other content company will let a streaming movie website show their movies. They may be affiliated with the website or the website is paying the studio for use of their films. For example, Crackle gets its free online movies from Sony Pictures, and Popcornflix gets theirs from Screen Media Ventures. 

When no one has copyright to a movie, including individuals, organizations, or governments, it becomes common property that anyone can view and share legally. You'll find that most of the time, these are older movies, including many classics that you've heard of before. Free streaming movie websites that show movies and shows that fall under public domain include websites like Retrovision and Internet Movie Archive.

You'll want to look for an "About Us" page or something similar to find out where these websites get their movies from. A link to this information may be found anywhere on the page but we find that most of the time there's a link at the bottom of the home page.

We have a list of what we consider to be the best free online movies that are completely legal. There's also a listing of free and legal places to watch TV online if you're looking for your favorite show.

They're Making Money Through Advertisements

Free streaming movie websites aren't just being nice in letting you watch free movies—they want to make money, too. If they aren't charging a subscription fee then they're most likely making money through advertisements.

Advertisements can be shown through click ads on their website or as periodic commercials during the movie or TV show that you're watching. You'll see these commercials while watching free movies at many legal movie sites, like Yidio.

However, don't use just ads as a motivator to stream the movies. Some websites that offer free new releases and other films have lots of ads, usually in the form of surveys, pop-ups you can't exit, and other obvious "click me" ads. Legitimate movie streaming sites usually just stick to in-video commercials and the occasional ad on the website.

We have a free streaming movie website comparison chart where you can see which websites show ads during their content.

There's Contact Information

If a free movie site is legal, then they have nothing to hide. You should be able to easily find their contact information on their website. Look at the bottom of the page for a section titled "Contact Us," "About Us," or something similar.

Finding a contact email address is great but if they have a physical address and phone number, that's even better.

There Aren't Any Really New Movies

When you visit a free movie website, you'll usually just see older movies, anywhere from a few years to a few decades old.

If you do see movies that are still in theaters or ones that were just released on DVD, this should raise a red flag. It's extremely rare for anyone to get permission to show these movies online, so if you see them, they're probably not legal.

If you want to watch that newest movie for free, you can stay legal and rent free movies at Redbox.

There's a Mobile App

Not all legal movie streaming websites have a mobile application for watching their movies and shows on the go, but if they do have one, it's likely that you can watch the movies without fear of violating a copyright.

This is because the app store that's giving out the app, like App Store used on the iPhone and other iOS devices, doesn't want its users downloading or streaming illegal content. Before an app is released on the iOS App Store, for example, a review process looks it over to make sure it doesn't violate any of the rules set by the App Store. This is when an illegal movie streaming app would be shut down and not released to the public for you to download.

Sony Crackle app for Android

The same concept applies to other official app stores like Google Play for Android phones and tablets.

If the app is available from a third-party site (not the official app store for your platform), it should make you question why.

Our list of free movie apps has several apps that let you stream 100 percent legal movies and shows. However, that list isn't exhaustive, so not seeing a particular app listed there doesn't automatically mean that it's illegal.

When In Doubt, Move On

If you're at a free streaming movie website and you just have a feeling that it's too good to be true, it probably is. Move on to another website that you feel comfortable with and that seems legitimate.

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