Given the nature of this topic, we must state upfront that nothing you read here should be considered legal advice.
We will do our best to lay out what is known about the legalities of downloading YouTube videos, as well as giving any relevant examples for context, but we are not legal professionals.
If you are not comfortable with the potential risks, our only advice is; do not break YouTube’s terms of service!
Whether or not it is legal to download YouTube videos is one of those questions that is very simple to answer from a rigid, technical standpoint, but deserves exploring more from a practical perspective.
Is it legal to download YouTube videos? – The short answer to this question is, if you have uploaded a video, then you are allowed to download that video via the tools provided in YouTube’s channel management. Downloading YouTube videos via any other means is breaking their terms of service, regardless of the license on that video.
That means that even if a video is listed as creative commons, or is a public domain piece, you are still not allowed to download it if you didn’t upload it, to begin with.
That is the absolute, black and white, no grey areas answer to “is it legal to download YouTube videos?”. If you do not want to risk falling afoul of YouTube’s content policies, that is all you need to know.
That being said, we mentioned there was more to explore on this subject and explore is precisely what we are going to do.
Can YouTube Ban You for Downloading Videos Against Terms?
The short answer is yes, but that is because YouTube can ban you anytime they like for anything they want. They are a private company and have complete discretion over who they allow on their platform. There are laws and regulations they must adhere to, of course, but these mainly relate to things like user data.
Theoretically, YouTube could also bring a civil lawsuit against anyone who breaks their terms of services.
Now, YouTube has never exercised either a ban or a lawsuit over breaking their terms by downloading video, but that would be little solace should they decide to make you the first their first case.
They did consider suing a video downloading service once but ultimately decided against it. So their past actions (and lack of actions), as well as rhetoric, suggest that they have no real desire to start banning people for downloading videos. Still, you should not assume that just because they have never exercised their right to before, they won’t do it in the future.
After all, money is a big motivator, and if a significant enough content network decided to put pressure on YouTube to stamp out this kind of thing, it wouldn’t be surprising if they did.
Now if you want to download videos to add b-roll to your videos then maybe consider something like storyblocks – I use them for all my cut away content. They have a range of plans to help you add eye catching and stunning visuals to your content.
Can YouTube Tell If You Download Video?
There is no automatic way for YouTube to tell if you are downloading videos. The services that allow you to download videos are more easily identifiable, and YouTube sometimes make changes to their platform that prevent these from working, though there is no way of knowing if it is a coincidence that the services stopped working, or YouTube specifically intended for that to happen. But there is no way for YouTube to tell that you are downloading a video using those services.
It is likely for this reason that YouTube does not make an effort to put a stop to this kind of activity.
For content that exists in other places—such as public domain video—it is almost impossible for YouTube to definitively say that any duplicate uploads were created with footage downloaded from their platform.
YouTube could infer that content has been downloaded, of course. If you were to download a video that is unique and only exists on YouTube and then reupload that video to their platform. However, with the amount of content that is uploaded every minute, it would be challenging for YouTube to find instances like this, even if people were willing to report this kind of terms breaking.
We say you would have to upload it to their platform because if you are not a registered user of YouTube, the only recourse YouTube would have for breaking their terms of service would be a lawsuit. Proving that any particular content was initially downloaded from YouTube against their terms of service would likely be difficult, and not worth the time and money it would cost.
Especially when YouTube can just remove the video and ban you.
Is it Ever Legal to Download Youtube Videos?
Other than downloading videos you uploaded in the first place, yes, there are situations when it is legal to download YouTube videos. The essential factor here is that YouTube’s terms of service are not law.
Breaking their terms does inherently mean you have broken the law—which is not to say there are never legal consequences for violating terms of service.
Again, we must stress that even though YouTube has never taken anyone to court for downloading videos, the possibility is there.
What this means is that for there to be legal ramifications of downloading video from YouTube, then YouTube themselves must bring a lawsuit against you. Proceeding on the basis that YouTube is unlikely to do so, you are only breaking the law if you download copyrighted content. Downloaded content that is creative commons or public domain does not violate any law, only YouTube’s terms. There is a caveat here, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
With regards to YouTube potentially bringing a civil action against you, remember that they need to be aware that you have broken their terms of service. As we mentioned, YouTube has no way of knowing who is using the various tools for downloading videos, so the only way they could possibly know is if you then put that content online somewhere. And even then, the chances of YouTube ever noticing it are practically non-existent, unless it is a high profile situation.
If you are downloading YouTube videos and keeping them to yourself, the chance of ever facing legal consequences are so remote that they may as well be non-existent. That being said, we must stress once more that it the risk does exist. If you break YouTube’s terms of service, you run that risk.
We mentioned above there was a caveat to breaking terms of service not being illegal. While that is true (always check your local laws, however), the practical reality of situations like this are not so clear cut.
For example, there was an incident in 2006 where a woman signed up to MySpace under a fake identity for the purposes of bullying a friend of her daughter. That friend later committed suicide. Obviously, this was a terrible tragedy, but it is the manner in which the prosecution went after the woman that is relevant here.
Giving false information was against MySpace terms of service, and an attempt was made to prosecute the woman under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, claiming that she had gained “unauthorised access” to MySpace’s services by breaking the terms of service. After initially being found guilty, the woman was later acquitted in appeal after a judge decided the precedent was troubling.
The important thing to note here is that, while breaking the terms of service itself was not illegal, it was still used as a means to justify prosecuting someone under a different law.
Now, granted, the death of a thirteen-year-old girl is very serious, and not in any way comparable to downloading videos from YouTube, but it is essential to paint a full picture. We can tell you that breaking YouTube’s terms of service is not illegal, but the law is not always as straight forward as that.
How Do You Download YouTube Video?
There are several free online services that allow you to download YouTube videos. Simply searching “youtube video downloader” will typically turn up a good number of such services.
They all work in more or less the same way. You first enter the URL of the video you wish to download. The service will check the link, and, if it can do it (not all videos are downloadable), you will be able to select from various options regarding the format and quality of your download.
Some services even offer rudimentary editing tools, such as trimming, and cropping, though most will just present you with a download to the untouched video.
It is usually possible to download just the audio from a video, which is particularly useful if the thing you are downloading is sound effects, or music. Though it should be noted that downloading copyrighted music from YouTube, while still not breaking the law in terms of the act of downloading itself, is definitely breaking the law in terms of music piracy. And the music industry is not shy about enforcing those laws.
As mentioned above, YouTube periodically changes the way things work behind the scenes. Sometimes, this results in YouTube video downloaders no longer working. Whether YouTube does this on purpose or the changes are unrelated and breaking the downloaders is just a coincidence, is unknown. Regardless, when this happens, you can try a different service as some services take longer to adapt to changes by YouTube than others. But if none of them can grab the video, you may have to accept that you won’t be able to download it if you can’t find it elsewhere.
Browser Plugins and Standalone Software
There are alternatives to the online services mentioned above. When you stream a video, you are essentially downloading it to your computer temporarily. It is possible to take advantage of this and keep the downloaded video permanently. Browser plugins, in particular, add a level of convenience that the online services can’t.
It should be noted, however, that using something like a browser plugin or a standalone piece of software may expose you. When you use an online service, as far as YouTube can see, that service is accessing their content. It doesn’t matter who is downloading the video; YouTube will still see the same service as the one who is doing the downloading.
When you download a video from your computer, YouTube can see you specifically. Whether or not they can tell that you are downloading, rather than streaming, is a question we can’t answer. But if they have a means of telling the two apart, it would make it more likely that they could identify you, if they ever decided to.
Are There Alternatives to Downloading YouTube Videos?
If you are looking for a specific video that is only available on YouTube, your options are very limited. In fact, the only way to get around breaking YouTube’s terms of service here would be to contact the uploader and ask them if they could send you the video.
Obviously, for this to work, you would need to have a good reason for wanting the video, as they are unlikely to help you out if your goal is just to reupload it somewhere else and monetise it.
If the content is licensed under creative commons or public domain, there is a good chance you will be able to find it elsewhere on the web, and YouTube’s policies will have no bearing on how you obtained your content. Though it should be noted that their policies on re-using content may come into play if you attempt to monetise something that already exists on the platform.
Just remember that, while YouTube has never taken action against individual YouTubers for downloading YouTube video, and while the act of doing so technically doesn’t break any laws, the possibility of YouTube doing so is there. As is the mechanisms by which they could come after you.
So, is it legal to download YouTube videos? No. Doing so would only violate YouTube’s terms of service, and that in and of itself is not illegal. But that doesn’t mean there is no risk of legal repercussions, and you should consider that before downloading any YouTube content.
And, once again, this post does not claim to offer legal advice of any kind. If you are unsure about the ramifications of your actions, consult a licensed legal professional first.