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The spread of broadband Internet access has made online video a much better experience, allowing movie fans to catch a flick on the Net without having to rent a DVD. Depending on the kind of system and monitor you have, watching films on a computer can become almost as enjoyable as watching them on your television.

For instance, with a new 20-inch iMac and a high-quality video you can get a full-screen experience that — depending on how comfortable your seat is –- might even make you forget you’re at your computer (complete with remote control). Windows users with widescreen monitors made for media or gaming can also enjoy the best of what both digital video and computers have to offer. And if you want to go even further you can pretend you are in a movie theater by viewing films within virtual worlds.

And although there are now more places online such as YouTube to view clips of your favorite movies and television shows, it’s not always easy to see full-length movies without paying for them. Downloading a movie from a service like iTunes, for instance, costs between $12.99 and $14.99, a price many of us aren’t willing to pay. And some complain that even with all that money spent, the media is never truly ours, making movie downloads less than a bargain.

There are, of course, other options. Many sites offer full-length films for download or viewing, but their legality is questionable. So if you want to watch full-length films but don’t want to pay, are there other choices? Frugal movie lovers are in luck, as there are several sites that offer online movie viewing — legally — without spending a dime.

1. Archive.org
The Internet Archive, also home to the popular website archive Wayback Machine, is perhaps the best totally legal source for watching full-length movies online. The archive is especially good for finding classic films, since many of them are public domain as their copyrights have expired. Here you can watch classics from the bad to the iconic. The most viewed movie on the archive is the original 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead). You can also find foreign films and independently produced documentaries. In addition to movies, the Internet Archive also features an excellent selection of other types of moving images, such as vintage educational films and commercials.

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Archive.org Viewing Options

2. Documantis
As a documentary fan, I was especially interested in this documentary film repository, and it also happens to have a good user interface and a wonderful selection of movies, all of which can be seen in their full-length form on the site. Categories range from politics to religion, the latter being highly emphasized. The documentaries with religious subject matter represent filmmakers of all stripes, so watch with a grain of salt. A standout is the award-winning documentary Jesus Camp, but there are also films of lesser production value, as well as TV news magazine segments.

3. Emol.org
This site, also called Entertainment Magazine, hosts a number of films online, from vintage cartoons to classic sports movies. Much smaller than the catalog at Archive.org, Entertainment Magazine has many of the same type of films, such as classic B-movie horror films and educational documentaries. This site also allows for downloading and burning of all content.

4. Google Video
Not YouTube, but “regular” Google Video has a slew of full-length films you can watch for free. They may not be the newest or the most critically acclaimed movies (a popular title is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) but there are a few interesting flicks in the collection. For instance, I found a really great documentary about graffiti artists in New York City in the early 1980s. (Search tip: from Google Video, try “advanced search” and select “long” in the duration dropdown menu. That will yield over 4.5 million videos over 20 minutes long, many of them mainstream movies.)

5. Hulu
Still in private beta, Hulu is NBC and Fox’s YouTube killer. In truth, the site is nothing like YouTube and is mostly stocked with clips from TV shows, but there is the occasional feature film, such as the 2003 epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Of course, the catch with Hulu is that you have to watch “limited commercial interruptions” a few times during each video — something not required at the other sites mentioned. Another snag with Hulu is that it is only available to U.S. users.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much on Google Video

Of course, there are several more sites which enjoy a lot of popularity among users, but probably aren’t very popular with the RIAA’s lawyers. These sites, such as QuickSilverScreen and Peekvid, are basically file-sharing services which allow users to upload whatever content they like without checking whether the person providing the video has the right to do so. Not surprisingly, these sites have a much larger selection of full-length movies than the sites above, often featuring new releases (that’s theatrical releases, not DVD releases) the week they come out. However, you might also see someone walk in front of the screen right during the movie.

More Ways to See for Free

If you’re interested in downloading movies for watching in the player of your choice on your computer, a site called PublicDomainTorrents is a good source. Like some of the other sites I’ve listed, most of the catalog is made up of classic films. But the great thing about this site is that you can download the movies in a format ready for whatever device you’re going to use to watch them, such as an iPod or a PDA, or for various types of media players such as DivX or QuickTime. This service is totally free.

Another way to watch movies online for free is to go directly to the source. There are several films that have been released under Creative Commons licenses or whose authors have simply stated that they are public domain, like in the case of the much talked-about Steal This Film. This documentary’s makers have encouraged free distribution and use of the movie, which explores the lives of those fighting against intellectual property rights.

There is at least one movie that plans to be free from the very start. A film project called A Swarm of Angels is being totally funded by donations over the Internet, and will release two movies — currently being prepped for production — completely free online.

What do you think? Do you enjoy watching movies online? Do you pay for movie downloads or access only free content? Where do you go to find free movies? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Photo of movie watching by pinprick on Flickr