Q. I am a Washington Nationals fan and I want to use a VPN to stream their games on the MLB.TV package this season. I live in Bowie (Maryland) so the games would be blacked out if I didn’t use a VPN. My question is: Is it legal to use a VPN? Could Major League Baseball arrest me or fine me for using it? — Ed, Bowie, Maryland.
Ed, let me first provide some background for our readers before answering your question.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, a software that you can download that will enable you to use an IP address different from your own. For instance, if you live in Bowie, Maryland, you could insert an IP address supplied by the VPN company that would make it look like you live in Denmark. The cost of a VPN varies, but many services sell them for under $10 a month.
By using a VPN, you could subscribe to the MLB.TV plan for $118.99 this season, and watch every Washington Nationals game without blackout from your home in Bowie. This is also true for other markets. For example, a Los Angeles resident could watch the Dodgers, a New York resident could watch the Yankees and so on. This can be advantageous because you wouldn’t have to subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service to get the regional channel that airs your home team’s games.
Normally, MLB.TV would be required to blackout the in-market game because the regional channel in your market (MASN in Ed’s case) has the exclusive rights. But with the VPN, MLB.TV wouldn’t know you live in that market.
But what exactly is the law that MLB suggests you would break if you use a VPN? The league is silent on that one. There is no reference to a criminal statute in the VPN section, and there is no record that the league has ever taken a violator to either criminal or civil court.
There are plenty of online testimonies from subscribers that the league has cancel their subscriptions for using a VPN, but again, no record it has ever brought criminal charges, despite the implicit threat it would do so.
I think it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a specific law that would govern the use of a VPN to stream the games. Otherwise, the league would cite it, and use it, when it catches someone in violation.
Afterall, the league actually refers to the use of VPNs in MLB.TV’s FAQ section for its blackout policy. The league explains how a game could be blacked out in a home because of a VPN.
“If you are accessing the Internet through a VPN connection, you might be getting a blackout message because the host IP address for the VPN is within the restricted range of the game that you are trying to access,” the site says. (For example,if your VPN uses a St. Louis IP, you couldn’t watch the Cardinals.)
MLB.TV’s FAQ adds that you should try dismantling the VPN and then see if your out-of-market game is still blacked out. But it doesn’t take the opportunity here to say that using a VPN while watching MLB.TV is against the law.
Ed, I’m not an attorney so don’t decide to use a VPN based solely on my interpretation of this situation. But I would remiss if I didn’t tell my readers what the league is doing, and not doing, in regards to VPNs.
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— Phillip Swann