Are Free Movie Sites Like 123Movies Legal and Safe?

By Jack SteinLast Updated November 30, 2020
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If you've ever been tempted to search for free movies online, you certainly aren’t alone. Some content is legitimately free to stream, but the key is to find that appropriate content while safeguarding both your internet safety and your legal rights. If you’ve heard about websites like 123Movies and other knock-off versions that allow users all over the world to stream brand new movies for free, then you may have some questions.

The problem with the concept is obvious. How could it be possible to stream movies that are currently playing in theaters or freshly released to streaming services without paying to watch them? The answer is equally obvious — you can’t, at least not legally. Before you get shanghaied into falling for the schemes of internet pirates, let’s take a deeper look at the concerns about legitimacy and safety on sites that claim free content is only a click away.

The World's Most Popular Illegal Site

Although the invitation to watch Outlander — only available via subscription streaming services like Starz and Hulu — is an appealing one, you would be wise to remember that deals that seem too good to be true usually have significant catches that aren’t appealing. If you remember the golden days of music sharing service Napster, then you know things don't always work out well for companies who offer free unlimited entertainment to the masses. Even worse, their customers often end up at risk as well.

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Regardless of what history has shown us, 123Movies did something quite similar when it launched sometime around 2015 or 2016. Users from all over the world could suddenly stream everything from brand new action movies to the latest TV shows, and the pirated content didn’t just come from the U.S. The site allowed users to watch free Filipino, Haitian, Nigerian, Farsi and many other foreign movies from all corners of the globe.

In March 2018, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) dubbed 123Movies the "most popular illegal site" in the world. After the MPAA and the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam confronted the Vietnamese government about the issue, the site was ultimately shut down a few weeks later when Vietnamese authorities stepped in to take a closer look. Of course, internet pirates don’t just fade away overnight. They simply learn to adapt and relocate.

Same Old Story, Brand New Name

Far from actually giving up and bowing down to the letter of the law, 123Movies merely changed its name and continued to operate a vast network of clone streaming sites, such as GoMovies, GoStream, MeMovies and 123Movieshub. These sites and others are all part of the same network — or other similar types of large streaming networks — and operate in the same way. In fact, 123Movies is far from the only internet piracy site that has amassed a huge following online in the past decade.

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A recent study conducted by The Global IP Center (GIPC) revealed that the growing piracy trend comes with some significant consequences. David Hirschmann, the CEO of GIPC, said, "Digital video piracy results in significant losses to the U.S. economy, harming businesses ranging from content production firms to the innovative technology companies that are driving the digital distribution revolution. While there is no single solution, global collaboration among industries and governments to educate consumers on the dangers of piracy, coupled with the expansion of legal options in cases of infringement, is necessary to curb these negative effects."

A Legal (and Moral) Dilemma

Again, the attraction of getting something you love for free is undeniable, but that doesn’t mean that doing something because "everyone else is doing it" is right or even legal. What does the law actually have to say about these sites? The answer is actually a bit complicated. U.S. copyright law makes it very clear that it's illegal to reproduce, distribute and download movies without owning the rights to them, but legal terminology written decades ago leaves some unfortunate gray areas that are no longer clear in a modern world.

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Modern streaming isn't exactly the same as downloading, so does it fall under the same legal restrictions? Obviously, it should. The spirit of the law remains clear — you shouldn’t be allowed to steal, alter or sell movies you don’t own — but, unfortunately, lawyers and judges aren’t big on upholding the "spirit" of the law. They care about what the legal language actually says.

It doesn’t help that courts in the U.S. and even in Canada have attempted to go after people suspected of illegally downloading content, only to end up with shaky results, especially when individuals were merely watching for their own enjoyment and not attempting to profit from the content. However, your risk of legal consequences increases if you watch movies obtained illegally with a large number of people, which could classify you as a "distributor." It also hurts your legal position if you actually download movies rather than stream them, and you certainly don’t want to make your downloads available to others through a P2P network.

Remember — Better Safe Than Sorry

Although you may be willing to skirt the lines of legality and morality when it comes to engaging with sites like 123Movies, the question of safety is not one you should take lightly. If you engage with a shady site that is essentially managed by criminals — white collar crime is still crime — then you can never trust that anything on the site is as it seems. Hackers could be using every keystroke you make and every link you click to steal all the data on your computer, including sensitive details related to your identity.

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There is no such thing as a "reputable" pirating site. By their very nature, these sites exist to circumvent the law, and you would be foolish to assume they will operate in upstanding, trustworthy ways. As you enjoy your free movie, the odds are high that malware is making its way onto your computer, smartphone or tablet with every byte of data that you stream.

Many pirating sites also take the opportunity to bombard you with disturbing ads as you watch, or you could even be redirected to completely different kinds of sites that are primed and ready to install viruses on your computer. Either way, the experience can become alarming very quickly.

Finding Legit Free Movies Is Legit Easy

To sum it all up, sites like 123Movies are both potentially dangerous and illegal. The consequences of using them can be harsh, and enjoying a free movie or TV show just isn’t worth the risk. If you can’t afford to pay for the movie, then you definitely can’t afford to pay to repair the damage to your device or to hire an attorney.

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Having said all that, there’s nothing wrong with looking for legitimate ways to enjoy legitimate free content on the Web. In some cases, movie studios even encourage viewers to watch their films for free. Case in point: Warner Brothers aired Just Mercy in June 2020 on a variety of platforms completely free to help educate viewers on the dangers of systemic racism.

Additionally, a variety of legal streaming sites and apps give viewers access to movies and TV shows for free by utilizing other methods to pay for the rights to the content, such as implementing in-show advertising. Tubi, for example, is a popular app for watching everything from TV shows to free movies. As long as you’re willing to put up with occasional commercial interruptions, everything you watch is free. Other free streaming sites that work in a similar way include Popcornflix, Crackle, Yidio, Vudu, IMDb TV and Pluto TV.

You may have to wait a few months to watch the latest feature films online for free, but if you’re patient, you can eventually watch them safely, which will make the experience even better. Be sure to do some research before trying a new site. When in doubt, simply move on to a site you know you can trust. Happy streaming!

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