The Legal Issues Behind Downloading YouTube Music Videos

Are YouTube downloaders legal?

Youtube logo on a computer screen

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

YouTube is a great place for watching videos. For the digital music fan, it's one of the best resources on the web to seek out free music videos starring your favorite artists and bands.

However, have you ever thought about the legal side of things when using software to download videos? Don't assume that because the content is already free to stream, that it's fine to download. In reality, you could be crossing more than one legal line without even knowing it.

The Question of Copyright

Legal

  • Download your own content.

  • Download public domain content.

  • Download videos with 'download' buttons.

  • Stream any video on YouTube.

Illegal

  • Download copyrighted videos.

There's usually some form of copyright protection for videos on the internet. These copyrights protect the rights of the originator or record label. YouTube is no exception.

In order to stay firmly on the right side of the law, it's typically required that you use a particular service in the right way. In the case of YouTube, this means streaming only, via the website or with an app.

Is it legal to capture these same streams and save them to your computer with an online YouTube downloader or offline video grabber? It's true that there are countless software apps and even online services that download YouTube videos or convert YouTube videos to MP3s. However, this doesn't necessarily mean it's legal for every video you might find.

What it really boils down to is the content and what you end up doing with it. Some content on YouTube is covered by the Creative Commons License, which allows you more freedom, but most aren't.

So, as a general rule, if you do decide to download music videos, only use the content for your own personal use and never distribute it. Now you're wondering about YouTube's restrictions on downloading videos; isn't that ignoring their rules?

Considering a Service's Terms of Use

All services have a rulebook that you have to agree to. A rulebook, however, that not many people read through because these rulebooks are rather lengthy. When you delve into YouTube's rules, you'll find that streaming is allowed and downloading is not allowed.

This is evident in section 5, part B of their Terms of Service:

You shall not download any Content unless you see a “download” or similar link displayed by YouTube on the Service for that Content.

If a producer releases an original YouTube video that doesn't contain any copyrighted material, and they include a download link in the description, it's completely okay to download. The same is true, of course, for your own, non-copyrighted videos that you upload; you can re-download those through your account, where you find a download button.

In part C, it states that video downloading services cannot be used to save music videos:

You agree not to circumvent, disable or otherwise interfere with security-related features of the Service or features that prevent or restrict use or copying of any Content or enforce limitations on use of the Service or the Content therein.

From a moral point of view, downloading videos takes revenue away from YouTube. Since in-video advertisements are a huge revenue generator for YouTube, watching a downloaded video without the ads is taking that potential revenue away.

This doesn't even take into account the revenue lost by producers when you download their content for free. You're stealing a song from a video you could have otherwise purchased from iTunes or the creators directly.

What's the Alternative?

One way YouTube tackles the issue of downloading videos to bring more value to its service is via YouTube Premium (it used to be called YouTube Red, and YouTube Music Key before that).

YouTube Premium is a subscription service that allows users to download videos for offline playback. It also has other benefits like zero advertisements and unlimited access to Google Play Music.