When looking for new movies to watch, or tracking down some old classics, it can be very tempting to use websites offering you the chance to stream them for free.

What’s the catch you might ask? Well, they could be plentiful - especially if the content is pirated. We take a look at whether it is legal to stream free movies online, and suggest a few safe alternatives.

Are free movie sites legitimate or not? 

The general rule of thumb is that if it looks too good to be true, then that’s most likely the case. Many sites offer pirated copies of new movies, which they monetise through adverts.

So, how can you check to see if the movie in question is legal or not? We asked Alice Skeats, Director of Communications for Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) for some advice.

‘If a consumer is unsure whether the film they have found online is free,’ says Alice, ‘they can visit www.findanyfilm.com which provides information on where you can watch, buy, rent or book tickets for films safely and legitimately.

‘If a website or app is offering a film for free that is still on at the cinema then the likelihood is that it is not a legal option.’

Can I watch any movies for free?

If you’re willing to put up with advertising and don’t mind watching older, more obscure titles, then Viewster is a good option.

On here you’ll find a wide range of films to choose from, and while the majority are of questionable quality – ‘Sorority Babes in the Dance-A-Thon of Death’ – if you dig deep enough you’ll find older treasures featuring Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Marilyn Monroe, Douglas Fairbanks, Basil Rathbone, and Frank Sinatra.

is it legal to stream free movies online  

There are some decent documentaries on offer too, and if you’re a fan of Anime then Viewster has a very good collection of TV shows.

Of course, you shouldn’t neglect the various catch-up services from broadcast channels in the UK, all of which can be watched online. You'll need a valid TV licence to watch iPlayer programmes, though.

BBC iPlayer often has several movies on offer, as does ITV, Film4, and My5.

is it legal to stream free movies online

But is it really illegal to stream films?

Again, we turned to FACT for a clarification on this oft-repeated wisdom in chatrooms, forums, and comment sections. 

‘In April [2017] the EU Court of Justice ruled that using a device to stream copyrighted content without the right permissions or subscriptions is breaking the law. Therefore, consumers need to be aware that streaming films in this way is very much illegal, as is downloading and distributing them.’

Many people view piracy as a victimless crime. After all, those huge corporations like Sony and Universal are awash with seemingly limitless cash that they splurge on eye-watering budgets and actors’ inflated pay packets.

But, the bulk of the creative industries are made up of working professionals, earning regular wages, reliant on the revenue from movies to pay their bills, like the rest of us. With just shy of 2 million people in the UK employed in these roles, it’s important not to see this as just some faceless studio based on the other side of the Atlantic.

‘Piracy has a significant impact on the U.K. economy,’ states Alice Skeats, ‘and the livelihoods of the millions of people working to put the TV, sport and films we love on the big screen. From sound engineers, costume designers, set carpenters and camera crew – hundreds of thousands of people's jobs are directly affected each time a film or TV show is pirated.’

Then there’s the issue of organised crime. Ad revenue from sites offering free movies can rack up, and this money often finds its way into the hands of those who behave like many of the villains found in the movies you’re watching.

‘If you are not paying for this content,’ Skeats continues, ‘you are depriving industry of the revenue it needs to fund the next generation of TV programmes, films and sporting events we all enjoy. Instead it provides funds for the organised criminals.

‘There are also so many risks facing the consumer' she concludes. 'Not only is this activity breaking the law but it also can expose the user to malware and viruses, explicit content and, in the case of illicit streaming devices, they have been proven to pose a fire and electrical risk.’

So, how do I watch the latest movies online for free?

While you can’t legally watch the big box-office favourites for free all the time, there is a way to do it for at least a few months.

Each of the major streaming services offers trial periods where you can check out their wares.

At the moment Netflix provides a month of free content, as does Amazon when you sign up for its Prime Video service

NowTV has a 14-day trial, while the excellent BFI Player also has a 30-day free sample period.

is it legal to stream free movies online

If you were to sign up to one, enjoy the content, then when the trial period ends cancel your subscription and move onto the next one, you’d be able to get a huge range of top-class free movies with no legal qualms at all.

When you’ve finished your film tourism you’ll also have a better idea of which service best fits your tastes. Then you can sign up and enjoy a continually updating catalogue of entertainment, all with a clear conscience.