Netflix, VPNs and Australian copyright law

Customers using VPNs to get around geo-blocking and access the American Netflix catalogue may be in violation of Australian copyright law.

Australians who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the US Netflix library may find themselves blocked from using the service or in violation of Australian copyright law.

Different catalogues for different countries

While Netflix is now available in over 190 countries worldwide, the catalogue of movies and TV shows for international customers can be quite different. While users anywhere can access Netflix's original programmes, they can only view studio releases that have been licenced for their home nations.

Using a VPN is legal, but accessing geo-blocked content with one is a violation of Australian copyright law.

To prevent consumers from accessing another country's catalogue, Netflix uses a technique called geo-blocking to detect a user's location and display the appropriate titles.

After Netflix's launch here, analysts rushed to compare the size of the US and Australian catalogues. In his research for Jxeeno blog, software developer Kenneth Tsang found that the US catalogue featured approximately 7,000 more titles than the Australian one.

Finding a way around geo-blocking

After Netflix first launched its streaming service in Australia, the number of people with access to the service jumped up to 2.63 million by September 2015, according to Roy Morgan Research. Prior to the launch, 340,000 Australians were able to use VPNs to access the US version of Netflix as reported in a News Limited article.  Given the disparity between the catalogues, it is no surprise that many people still use VPNs to circumvent geo-blocking.

VPNs work by hiding an internet user's true location, tricking websites into thinking he or she is in another city or country and permitting access to geo-blocked content. Using a VPN is legal, but accessing geo-blocked content with one is a violation of Australian copyright law.

According to the Australian Copyright Council, using a VPN to view content not licenced for access in a user's location is a copyright issue. A show on Netflix Australia, for example, gives users permission to stream it. Watching a show not licenced for Australia through a VPN effectively involves making an illegal reproduction of copyright protected material. 

Blocking VPN access

Facing pressure from copyright holders, Netflix is beginning to block users from accessing its site through VPNs. In a blog post from January 14, the company announced that it was striving toward providing as much content as possible, but that it would do its part to restrict access to copyright protected titles.

Services like Netflix play an interesting role when it comes to copyright law, particularly given their effect on online piracy. The conflict between copyright holders, content providers and end users is likely to shape the future of copyright law in Australia.