The German Way: Confessions of an expat TV addict in Germany
Expat Erin Porter, a self-confessed US TV addict, explains how you can watch American and foreign TV and films in Germany – and the German laws against it.
This is the most honest way to introduce myself: Hello, my name is Ebe and I am an expat TV addict.
It’s true. Despite living in Germany for several years, I still watch American TV every day. As a writer working from home, I have the freedom to tune into the squabbles of various housewife franchises, observe the zombie apocalypse and evaluate cooking competitions any time I want – and I want.
It’s comforting in this strange life abroad to hear those familiar accents discussing things I understand. Unlike German politics, the best Fleischsalat or how to help the refugees in Oranienplatz, I have opinions on TV. It helps me stay connected to that life I left behind and keeps me in the loop with my stateside community.
On the other hand, my commitment to US television has certainly played a part in the slow pace at which I am learning German. It has been easy – far too easy – for me to live in the dreaded expat bubble, speaking English with my American husband and listening to my American television friends. In a place as metropolitan and expat-filled as Berlin, I am just one example of how easy it is to get by in this city for years – years! – with only basic German skills (and I would love to blame my TV addiction for my poor German but many people watch American TV and speak German so clearly it is a personal problem). I am legitimately embarrassed but can’t seem to stop myself from tuning in. Addict isn’t too far off from the truth…
And it’s not as easy as just turning on the TV – I actually work to maintain my addiction. While the ability to stream shows online has vastly increased in the US in recent years, the ability to watch shows outside of the country they are made for – and advertised in – has not. Services like Hulu and even many YouTube videos are unavailable outside of the US, although Netflix entered the market in 2014.
GEMA (Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs or Society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights) is a dirty word for many expats in Germany. This German organisation has been called one of the most aggressive PROs (performance rights organisations) in the world and its representation of authors’ rights prevents many popular multimedia videos from being played in Germany. This has resulted in ferocious court battles and many frustrating surfs around the internets.
Many a time have I clicked on a video only to see the cursed, 'Unfortunately, this video is not available in Germany because it may contain music for which GEMA has not granted the respective music rights'. Not buying that weak apology GEMA! While the effort to provide compensation for creators is completely admirable, the implementation can be quite inscrutable.
Luckily (or not) for me, there are several different methods to get around these restrictions and watch American TV in Germany. With these words of endorsement and warning of dependency, here is an overview of how you may access foreign TV abroad. Read and watch at your own risk!
Streaming versus downloading
There is a lot of confusion and discussion about the difference between streaming and downloading and the legality of each. Let’s keep it simple:
- Downloading – moving a file from a website to your computer.
- Streaming – content is delivered in a continuous stream and displayed to the viewer in real time.
Is downloading legal in Germany?
In a word, no. There are many cases of individual users fined exorbitant amounts for downloading music, TV shows and movies in Germany. Making any copy, such as a download, is illegal.
Interestingly, it is the uploading (making copyrighted material available) that usually gets people in trouble. Peer-to-peer file sharing networks often require users to upload files as they are downloading, resulting in a breach of copyright and possible legal action.
Is streaming legal in Germany?
This is a grey area and may change in the future, but some court cases indicate that streaming is legal in Germany. By watching it online without downloading or 'owning' the file with no ability to distribute, you do not infringe on copyright.
The grey area comes in with how browsers function, in that the file is temporarily saved to your computer. In that way, this is also a breach of copyright. The saving grace for addicts like me is in the difficulty in determining who these users are. In some cases, no legal action is taken against people who stream content.
While a simple online search reveals many sites offering streaming video, they change frequently as they are shut down and re-incarnated with slightly different names. For an example, I highly recommend reading about scandalous Megaupload and its flamboyant German-Finnish operator, Kim Dotcom.
The bigger threat with streaming is that most services are rife with viruses. Pop-ups are incessant and it is vital to have up-to-date virus protection. Stream with caution TV fans.
VPNs in Germany
VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) have long been the ideal tool to trick your computer into thinking you never left home. This allows users to hide their IP address and access a private network, sharing data remotely through public networks with the user’s IP address replaced by the VPN provider. This means that even though my computer and I live in Berlin, by using a VPN I can bypass geographic restrictions and am back in the world of American programming. If you want to get fancy, this can also allow you to take advantage of p2p and torrent sites to download files like music and video.
Naturally, this leads to the next question.
Are VPNs legal in Germany?
VPNs are legal in Germany but breaching copyright is not. Even though the VPN allows you access to geolocked websites, it is up to you to avoid infringing on copyright. For example, if a streaming site only has a licence to broadcast in the US, that is what the copyright owners have agreed to. On the other hand, there seems to be little interest in prosecuting people who do so.
Top 5 VPNs for expats in Germany
There are many providers offering VPNs at all price points, ease of use, type of protocol and protections available in Germany. Almost all of them offer money-back guarantees or a free trial and usually run under EUR 10 a month, so there is little risk in giving one a whirl.
- VPN Authority – this is a service I used as a gift subscription. I can say from experience that I have been impressed at the easy installation and ability to turn it on by just clicking 'connect'. In a few seconds, I am connected and whizzing around the US geo-blocked sites. My only complaint is that it is just a smidge slower than our regular internet service (a common complaint with VPNs) and occasionally the connection breaks and you need to wait for something to mysteriously work itself out.
- VyprVPN – service based in Switzerland with superior speeds.
- Private Internet Access – great reputation for protecting your identity by keeping no logs on usage.
- ibVPN – one of the cheapest services at USD 4.95/month.
Other methods for watching foreign TV in Germany
- Slingbox – this streaming device encodes video into VC-1 format for transmission over the internet and provides an infrared blaster. Sounds pretty sci-fi, right? This allows users to operate their home’s cable, satellite, etc. remotely over the internet and view content that would normally be blocked abroad.
- Maxdome.de – just one of the crop of German sites offering monthly subscriptions to watch movies and TV shows. Most of these services primarily offer German content but some English content can be found or on Amazon’s Lovefilm and realeyz.tv.
- Expattelly.com – provides access to British programming at around EUR 60/year.
- iTunes (de) – the media giant offers movies to rent or buy with many English options.
Are you addicted to foreign TV? What method do you use? What did I miss? I only scratched the surface, so please share your TV watching secrets with me.
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