Whether or not downloading TV shows is legal depends on a number of factors and is an evolving area of law that is trying to catch up with technology. Much depends on the source of the file, the copyright status of the program, and the country in which you live. In many cases, it is the provider uploading the show to the Internet that is breaking the law by illegally distributing copyrighted content, but it can also be illegal to download television shows.
Making unauthorized copies of TV shows for friends is a form of copyright piracy.
Under US copyright law, there is a “fair use” statute that basically allows a person to duplicate or share copyrighted material on a limited basis for casual use in limited circumstances. For example, if you buy a book and let your neighbor read it when you’re done, that’s fair use. Fair use also allows you to copy tracks from your legally purchased CDs to make a personal music compilation. Likewise, it’s also great to make a “hard copy” (videotape or digital recording) of your favorite show while it’s on TV. Fair Use does not allow the redistribution or sale of copyrighted materials.
Digital video recorders allow people to download and watch their favorite shows, but it is still illegal to sell and distribute downloaded material.
Based on the precedence of fair use, some argue that it is legal to download TV shows that have already been broadcast in your home. The problem with this argument, seen by copyright holders, is twofold. First of all, downloaders may not pay for content at home. Second, copyright holders hope to sell the licensing rights to television shows in other countries. When episodes end up on the internet, the series essentially becomes free to the world, violating copyright and distribution laws.
For these reasons, networks generally do not want consumers to download television programs, regardless of the downloader’s perceived status, real or imagined, in order to act fairly under the law. The only virtual exception is if the network itself makes the show available, which is increasingly the case on sites like Hulu, which is owned by NBC and News Corp.
Premium cable networks like Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime have uploaded episodes of original series to spark interest on subscription services. Many free stations also offer downloadable TV content, such as the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). It is completely legal to download TV shows from these original sources for personal use.
It is also legal to download TV shows when copyright owners release the material for free distribution. This is sometimes the case with older series, which have been licensed internationally for a long time and no longer have distribution value.
It seems likely that the Internet of the future will play a role in distributing all television content in a medium that is acceptable and profitable for copyright holders and convenient for consumers. In the meantime, if you want to download TV shows you haven’t already paid for at home (or received for free), it’s probably illegal unless the source is the network that produced the show or a licensed dealer. If you receive the program at home, but the network does not offer it online, the source is probably illegal.
Many streaming services allow people to download shows directly to their TV for later viewing.