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Is Plex Legal?

Plex running on a smartphone.
Gary L Hider/Shutterstock.com

Plex is arguably the best streaming platform out there today if you want to curate your own client-side media library or access an extensive library of streaming content. Between these two broad feature sets, you might be wondering: is Plex legal?

Update, 9/14/22: Checked content for accuracy and dead links.

The important thing to know is that Plex is indeed a legitimate company and has been legal in every country it has operated in since its inception as a bit of freeware back in 2007. However, as with any versatile tool, Plex can be used in a way that its developers did not intend because it empowers the user more than big streaming platforms like Netflix or Apple TV.

One Plex, Two Primary Functions

Plex app running on a phone sticking out of pocket of jeans.

When it comes to Plex, you can think of it as a company with two primary services. They almost serve as opposite sides of the same coin, with one focused on the content you own and the other bringing you content you don’t necessarily own for free.

Client-Side Media Server

Plex essentially has two suites: its original functionality is to locally host your private media library, acting as a client-side server for all of your movies, music, and other multimedia. If you were a media nerd in the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you kept an external hard drive loaded up with music and video files, often ripped from DVDs and CDs you’d purchased. Some would even fill their external hard-drive coffers with extralegally obtained media if you can believe it. Having an extensive library of content was a desirable trait before we all had access to massive online media libraries.

Streaming services eventually replaced that functionality for a lot of people. But many still prefer to curate their collection of titles that will never be rotated out (as they are on streaming services) and aren’t hampered by compression or buffering speeds. If you’d rather stream your curated content from a PC in your house to your TV, the Plex Media Server is for you.

This side of Plex is technically legal, albeit with some caveats, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Server-Side Streaming Service

The other side of Plex is comparable to other modern streaming services, like Hulu: the platform hosts an imposing library of content that you can stream from the company’s servers. At first glance, this seems too good to be true: there’s quite a bit of content offered entirely for free, including live TV, and some of it is concurrently available on competing subscription-based streaming platforms.

You’d be forgiven for wondering how Plex could be streaming content alongside competitors, and often for free. This part is 100 percent legal, so have at it.

How Does It Work?

Television hanging on a wall with the Plex app running.

So, where does all that server-side streaming content come from? The same place it always comes from: mutually profitable licensing agreements between the folks running the platform and the people selling the content.  And it’s free to you because there are ads (though, you can opt for the premium version if you’d like extra features, and that’ll make it less free).

So, fear not: even as you vegetate on the couch while watching free content, money is indeed exchanging hands.

So Is It Ever Illegal?

Finger tapping the Plex app icon on an iPhone.

Plex itself is never illegal — if it were, it wouldn’t be a trusted partner with its content providers. You, however, are very capable of illegality, and you have sentience and agency. Thus, when the powers of Plex are combined with your capacity for malfeasance, Plex can become an unwitting accomplice.

Or, if you prefer a literal piracy analogy: Think of Plex as a wooden ship. The ship itself is up to code and isn’t capable of breaking any laws on its own. If the navy uses that ship, it’s working as intended — nice and legal. But if said ship is instead used for piracy? Well, that’s illegal, but it’s not the ship’s fault, is it? The ship does what the captain tells it to do.

Plex is perfectly legal whenever you’re streaming from their server or whenever you upload personal media that was acquired and reproduced legally. On the other hand, the user can put illegally obtained content on their personal media server. It’s not a peer-to-peer media sharing platform, so the impact is relatively low-profile even when the content is pirated.

An even grayer area is ripping content from Blu-ray or other physical media that you actually purchased but are “misusing” according to that media’s legal language. Most people never read the relevant disclaimers, and the language can vary (and sometimes seem contradictory). At the end of the day, it’s up to you how guilty you feel ripping a Blu-ray that you bought so that you can stream it locally to your TV. If you can live with a version of yourself that doesn’t strictly follow extraneous instructions from people who already got your money, it’s unlikely you’ll raise anyone else’s eyebrows. And it’s unclear just how legal and enforceable some of these disclaimers are.

The Bottom Line

The legality of Plex is in the details of the licensing agreements. You can feel safely assured that the license agreements handled on Plex’s end are all kosher. Where you may run into potential legal issues is the license agreements that you agree to. Because you probably don’t have a personal legal team to read your Blu-ray jewel cases for you, that’s obviously where most of the risk lies.

That said, the disclaimers you may run afoul of are often of dubious legal value (particularly when it comes to how you use the physical media that you paid for). The client-side-only nature of Plex’s personal media server functionality means you can’t easily use Plex to share illegally obtained or copied media to untold masses. So, Plex is a ship that could be used for piracy, but it really doesn’t want you to.

Alex Johnson Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson is a freelance writer for Review Geek who has been writing professionally for over 12 years, but has been a critical geek for nearly 34. He also writes history books with curse words in them. Read Full Bio »