Most people turn to Netflix to binge watch full seasons of a single TV show, but there could be a much cheaper way: YouTube.
You might be surprised to learn that you can watch full episodes of popular TV shows on YouTube for free, thanks to a large number of rogue accounts that are hosting illegal live streams of shows.
Do you love King of the Hill? Easy. Just choose which episode you like best. The Simpsons? Plenty to pick from there, too. Or, maybe you’re looking for some football? You can watch a livestream replay of the latest game easily, as if the NFL’s draconian intellectual property rules mean absolutely nothing.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about these free (and very illegal) TV live streams might even make their way into your suggested video queue, if you watch enough “random shit” and Bobby Hill quote compilations on the site, as Mashable business editor Jason Abbruzzese recently experienced.
He first noticed the surprisingly high number of illegal TV streaming accounts on his YouTube homepage, which has tailored recommended videos based on his viewing habits. Personalized recommendations aren’t exactly new but the number of illegal live streams broadcasting copyrighted material on a loop was a shocker.
When we looked deeper into the livestreams, the number we found was mindblowing. Many of these accounts appear to exist solely to give watchers an endless loop of their favorite shows and only have a few other posts related to the live streamed content.
What’s really strange is that there appears to be no obvious incentive for doing this, either. We can basically rule out doing it for ad money because you have to apply to be part of the YouTube Partner Program to earn any ad revenue. Your channel also needs 10,000 views to be eligible to apply, and YouTube has to approve of every account that makes it through, so none of these accounts have a chance to pass.
The audiences watching these channels are actually pretty small compared to other popular channels, too. The largest number of viewers we witnessed was just over a thousand, while many streams had only a few dozen people tuned in at any given time. Clearly, this isn’t the type of content that fosters the types of large communities found elsewhere on the site.
We reached out to a few of these account holders directly on the platform, but haven’t heard back from anyone as of press time.
The phenomenon seems to be rather ephemeral. Most of the accounts we viewed early in the day were shut down within just a few hours. Some of them survived for up to 20 hours after they were posted but they were few and far between.
YouTube does its best to make it easy for people to report illegal copyright streams, which could be why the accounts are so often wiped from the site.
First, copyright holders can formally notify YouTube that they believe their materials are being improperly hosted. YouTube then reviews the offending content, and pulls it down if it’s found to be infringing the copyright. Users who have multiple complaints against them can be banned from the platform entirely.
Second, there’s the nearly decade-old tool called Content ID, which allows the rights holders to manage their content more directly. Copyright holders provide reference files of their content to YouTube, which feed them into the system. The tool can be used for tracking, monetization, or outright blocking content that match the copyrighted materials. There are over 8,000 partners who use this tool, a vast majority who choose to allow materials to stay up.
Video uploaders aren’t exactly hung totally out to dry here, either. If a video creator receives a takedown request, they can file a counter notification. Likewise with Content ID claims YouTube creators can dispute those, too.
We reached out to YouTube to ask about its stance on the livestreams, since the videos are so clearly outside the realm of copyright laws.
“YouTube respects the rights of copyright holders and weve invested heavily in copyright and content management tools to give rights holders control of their content on YouTube,” a YouTube spokesperson told Mashable in an email. “When copyright holders work with us to provide reference files for their content, we ensure all live broadcasts are scanned for third party content, and we either pause or terminate streams when we find matches to third party content.”
We also reached out to 20th Century Fox (the copyright holder for King of the Hill, which we found to be a commonly streamed show), but its reps had no comment on the matter.
It looks like those live streams that caught our eye are just another quirk of the live streaming video platform, which has morphed from an internet oddity for cat videos to a major streaming and music giant over the years. You might not always be able to watch your favorite shows on YouTube especially if the copyright holder is persistent but if you find a stream at the right moment, you might find some free binging where you least expect it. Just remember that there’s a good chance the person posting the copyrighted material is breaking the law.