Using Netflix in South Africa is illegal

South Africans continue to be frustrated by the paucity of legitimate and convenient TV and movie download or streaming options. At the moment DSTV and a limited South African iTunes store are the primary options. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be enough so more and more consumers are looking to popular video rental service, Netflix, for their entertainment needs. The problem is that Netflix content isn’t legally available in South Africa and its likely for the same reason that the local iTunes store lacks TV and some movie content: licensing restrictions. Brett Haggard, writing for a week or so ago, pointed this out:

Right now, we’re told by inside sources at the big pay TV service providers on the continent (take a guess who, I mean, there aren’t all that many to choose from) that the digital rights for the popular television series we all crave so badly haven’t been signed, sealed and delivered to any one party as yet. Our sources tell us that, should anyone express any interest in bringing that content to the continent in a digital form, the big pay TV service providers will have the first shot at the action, in effect blocking the attempts of other players to get their hands on vital content licenses.

What this means is that the only legitimate means of obtaining much of the TV content (and probably the movies missing from the South African iTunes store) is through the local pay TV providers. The reason is what appear to be exclusive or pre-emptive content licensing deals the local paid TV providers have struck with the content producers or distributors. In many respects, this is the same issue we faced when the iTunes store was not yet available in South Africa (or, at least, where certain content or channels are not available here) and which I wrote about in my 2009 post titled “Legalities of US iTunes Store vouchers in South Africa“:

What does this mean? Well, the license granted to users is the set of permissions that give users the lawful right to consume that content. This is primarily a copyright issue. The content available in the store is owned by 3rd party content creators, publishers and other rights holders. They own the content and, through a license, grant users the right to consume the content.

So, for example, a music company owns the rights to an album that is available for sale in the iTunes Store. This means it likely owns copyright in that album and the bundle of rights that give it the exclusive rights to do various things with the content. In the absence of a license from the music company, you may not do much with the music. The license contained in the iTunes terms of service grants you permission to buy the album and consume it. In this case the license comes from Apple which was, in turn, licensed by the music company to sell the album to you under the license in Apple’s terms of service. It is a little complicated but the bottom line here is that the license in the iTunes terms of service is a series of permissions and restrictions. One of those restrictions is the geographical limitation of the iTunes Store’s availability. What that means is that if you purchase content from the iTunes Store in violation you are doing so in breach of the license and that, in turn, is a breach of copyright and is illegal. It is also a breach of your contract with Apple in the form of the terms of service and Apple could effectively cut your access to the Store and potentially the content you purchased from the Store.

Netflix users face a similar challenge and for similar reasons. The document which governs much of a Netflix user’s service use is the Netflix Terms of Use which begins with the following:

Welcome to Netflix! We are a subscription service that provides our members with access to motion pictures, television and other audio-visual entertainment (“movies & TV shows”) streamed over the Internet to certain Internet-connected TV’s, computers and other devices (“Netflix ready devices”).

These Terms of Use govern your use of our service. As used in these Terms of Use, “Netflix service,” “our service” or “the service” means the service provided by Netflix for discovering and watching movies & TV shows, including all features and functionalities, website, and user interfaces, as well as all content and software associated with our service.

These Terms of Use cover a broad range of issues relating to your service use but if you skip to about halfway down, to section 6 titled “Netflix Service”, you will read these key clauses (parts c, e and f, respectively – I have highlighted the key sections):

You may view a movie or TV show through the Netflix service only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such movie or TV show. The content that may be available to watch will vary by geographic location. Netflix will use technologies to verify your geographic location. YOU MAY WATCH ON UP TO SIX UNIQUE AUTHORIZED NETFLIX READY DEVICES AND THE NUMBER OF DEVICES ON WHICH YOU MAY SIMULTANEOUSLY WATCH IS LIMITED. Go to the change plan information in the “Your Account” page to see the number of devices on which you may simultaneously watch. The number of devices available for use and the simultaneous streams may change from time to time at our discretion without notice.

You agree to use the Netflix service, including all features and functionalities associated therewith, in accordance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations, including public performance limitations or other restrictions on use of the service or content therein. You agree not to archive, download (other than through caching necessary for personal use), reproduce, distribute, modify, display, perform, publish, license, create derivative works from, offer for sale, or use (except as explicitly authorized in these Terms of Use) content and information contained on or obtained from or through the Netflix service without express written permission from Netflix or its licensors. You also agree not to: circumvent, remove, alter, deactivate, degrade or thwart any of the content protections in the Netflix service; use any robot, spider, scraper or other automated means to access the Netflix service; decompile, reverse engineer or disassemble any software or other products or processes accessible through the Netflix service; insert any code or product or manipulate the content of the Netflix service in any way; or, use any data mining, data gathering or extraction method. In addition, you agree not to upload, post, e-mail or otherwise send or transmit any material designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer software or hardware or telecommunications equipment associated with the Netflix service, including any software viruses or any other computer code, files or programs.

The availability of movies & TV shows to watch will change from time to time, and from country to country. The quality of the display of the streaming movies & TV shows may vary from computer to computer, and device to device, and may be affected by a variety of factors, such as your location, the bandwidth available through and/or speed of your Internet connection. You are responsible for all Internet access charges. Please check with your Internet provider for information on possible Internet data usage charges. Netflix makes no representations or warranties about the quality of your watching experience on your display. The time it takes to begin watching a movie or TV show will vary based on a number of factors, including your location, available bandwidth at the time, the movie or TV show you have selected and the configuration of your Netflix ready device.

In other words:

  • Content availability is limited by geography (almost certainly because of the sorts of licensing deals Haggard alluded to in his article);
  • Netflix will use verification technologies to confirm you are in the country you say you are in (this is to help Netflix ensure it complies with its licensing obligations to its content providers);
  • You agree not to circumvent measures Netflix puts in place to limit access to its service or to make use of the content other than as permitted by these Terms of Use;
  • As we have seen with the local iTunes store, the range of content that is available in different regions will vary from country to country.

As with iTunes, there are ways to circumvent Netflix’s technologically-enforced geographical restrictions but having the capability to access Netflix’s content doesn’t equate to permission to access it. If you lack permission to access the Netflix content you lack a license to access that content and unlicensed or unauthorised access to the Netflix content is copyright infringement. In legal terms, this is tantamount to torrenting the content. The main difference is that consumers who go to the lengths of spoofing their locations to sign up to use Netflix are, at least, paying for the content. That should count for something but it doesn’t change the legalities of not complying with Netflix’s Terms of Use.


p>If you are accessing Netflix from South Africa, you are infringing copyright and likely to be branded a “pirate”. At least you’re paying.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

One thought on “Using Netflix in South Africa is illegal

  1. I understand that a South African bypassing a geowall to access Netflix for private or domestic use would be in breach of a contractual term. Breach of contract _may_ give rise to contractual damages (although it is unclear what damages Netflix would suffer). But breach of contract is not necessarily unlawful. You say it is:

    ‘If you are accessing Netflix from South Africa, you are infringing copyright and likely to be branded a “pirate”’

    But is that correct?

    The nature of copyright protection in our law for cinematograph films is listed in section 8(1) of the Copyright Act 98 of 1978:
    ‘Copyright in a cinematograph film vests the exclusive right to do or to authorize the doing of any of the following acts in the Republic:
    (a) Reproducing the film in any manner or form, including making a still photograph therefrom;
    (b) causing the film, in so far as it consists of images, to be seen in public, or, in so far as it consists of sounds, to be heard in public;
    (c) broadcasting the film;
    (d) causing the film to be transmitted in a diffusion service, unless such service transmits a lawful television broadcast, including the film, and is operated by the original broadcaster;
    (e) making an adaptation of the film;
    (f) doing, in relation to an adaptation of the film, any of the acts specified in relation to the film in paragraphs (a) to (d) inclusive;
    (g) letting, or offering or exposing for hire by way of trade, directly or indirectly, a copy of the film.’

    The relevant offence provisions are in section 27(1):
    ’27 Penalties and proceedings in respect of dealings which infringe copyright
    (1) Any person who at a time when copyright subsists in a work, without the authority of the owner of the copyright-
    (a) makes for sale or hire;
    (b) sells or lets for hire or by way of trade offers or exposes for sale or hire;
    (c) by way of trade exhibits in public;
    (d) imports into the Republic otherwise than for his private or domestic use;
    (e) distributes for purposes of trade; or
    (f) distributes for any other purposes to such an extent that the owner of the copyright is prejudicially affected,
    articles which he knows to be infringing copies of the work, shall be guilty of an offence.’

    I do not see video streaming (even in breach of a private contract) as falling under any of the prohibited provisions. To the extent that ‘importation into the Republic’ is regulated by the Act, the prohibition expressly excludes importation ‘for private or domestic use’.

    This is not my area of the law, so I am concerned that I may have missed something. I would therefore be grateful if you would provide the basis for your view that accessing Netflix in SA for private or domestic use is a breach of our copyright law or is in any other way unlawful.


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