Wondering if torrenting is illegal? We don’t blame you – there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.
You’ve read horror stories about million-dollar lawsuits, bankruptcies and even criminal charges due to torrenting.
You sit through unskippable anti-piracy warnings filled with threatening language every time you watch a Blu-ray movie.
And various torrent sites seem to be dropping like flies, each replaced with a menacing statement from the FBI.
But at the same time, your friends tell you that they’ve been torrenting for years without so much as a warning letter.
The developer of your torrent client is still a free citizen who maintains that there’s nothing illegal going on.
And for every torrent site that goes down, there’s five more that remain up and running – like a many-headed hydra.
So far, the warnings haven’t been enough to convince you to uninstall your torrent client. But there’s still a fear in the back of your mind: am I breaking the law?
The exact answer depends on many factors, such as where you live and what you download.
Let’s explore the legal implications of torrenting and find out, once and for all, whether it’s legal for you to torrent or not.
What Is Torrenting?
To understand torrenting and the law, we first need to understand how torrenting works.
Typically, when you download a file from a website, you connect to one server: the one that hosts the file. The entire file comes directly from that server – it’s a one-on-one exchange.
This type of browser-based filesharing generally uses the HTTP or HTTPS protocols – the same ones used to view websites. (A protocol is just a set of rules and procedures your computer uses to transmit data.)
Torrenting, on the other hand, works differently. It uses its own special protocol – BitTorrent.
When you find a movie, album or program on a torrent site, you download a torrent file and open it in your torrent client.
The torrent file you download isn’t the desired media itself. Rather, it’s a small file that your torrent client uses to find and join a mini-network of other users, or “peers.”
Some of these users, like you, are trying to download the movie, album or program. These users are called “leechers.”
Other users have already obtained the files and, thus, can transmit it to others. These former leechers are called “seeders.”
Seeding and Leeching
Seeders work together to upload files to leechers. Each file is split into many smaller packets, and each seeder uploads a portion of the file’s packets.
Leechers who have partially downloaded a file also seed the packets they possess.
So when you leech, you’re downloading a single file from many seeders, because each seeder uploads only part of the file. You’re also uploading what you can to other leechers in the process.
Once you’ve obtained all the packets, your torrent client assembles them all into a single file. And voila – you’ve got your desired media, thanks to your peers.
Now you’re a full-time seeder, distributing various packets to new leechers until you remove the torrent file from the client.
This cooperative filesharing method is a type of peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing. It’s decentralized and encourages users to pay it forward by seeding what they leech.
In principle, there’s nothing dangerous about torrenting. It’s just a protocol for uploading and downloading data, just like FTP or HTTPS.
But you’ll often hear from anti-torrenting advocates that torrents are dangerous.
Indeed, malware can disguise itself as a torrent of the latest blockbuster, infecting anyone who downloads it.
However, the same is true of any other file download.
Malware can be downloaded from a web link just as easily as through a torrent. And you’ll never know for sure that you’re downloading a real file until it’s completed, regardless of how you download it.
In fact, by taking advantage of various torrent features, you can download much more safely than normal.
Many torrent sites allow users to leave comments or give ratings to torrents. You can examine these before downloading to see if others have vetted the torrent’s legitimacy.
Additionally, some torrent sites, such as the Pirate Bay, label trustworthy uploaders with a verification badge. These badges indicate that the torrent comes from a safe, high-quality source.
Speaking of torrent sites, it’s important to choose those carefully as well. Some torrent sites run malware-laden ads that look like download buttons, tricking users into becoming infected.
To avoid these, always browse with an ad blocker enabled, and make sure your firewall and antivirus are both active and up-to-date.
With a bit of legwork and common sense, it’s easy to avoid malware and download torrents safely.
The real danger comes not from the torrents themselves, but from those who monitor them.
Are Torrents Legal?
We’ll start things off with some good news: the BitTorrent protocol itself is completely legal. There’s nothing inherently illicit about it, and it’s legal to use around the world.
Torrent clients, like uTorrent and qBittorrent, are also legal to download, install and use. They’re just software programs and don’t really do anything until you load them with torrent files.
It’s these torrent files that are potentially troublesome. How troublesome depends on where you are and what’s in the files.
Torrents and Copyrights
A torrent file can contain anything, from a single public domain photo to a 100GB video game worth hundreds of dollars.
Downloading the former would be completely legal. Anything in the public domain is free for anyone to use or share – there’s no copyright on it.
But downloading the latter would, in most jurisdictions, be illegal.
That’s because video games are usually copyrighted, and it’s illegal to distribute copyrighted material without permission.
It’s just as illegal to download that game from a website as it is to torrent it. It’s not the torrent that’s illegal, it’s the fact that you’re obtaining unauthorized copyrighted material.
Copyright law applies regardless of whether or not the material was originally free. Even if you torrent a copyrighted album that’s free on the artist’s website, you’re still violating the copyright.
Basically: if it’s copyrighted, it’s illegal to torrent.
There are occasional exceptions, though. Some content creators, like the hip-hop artists iLoveMakonnen and Hot Sugar, have released albums on BitTorrent.
Though those albums are copyrighted, downloading the official torrent isn’t illegal. That’s because the copyright holder is the one who created the torrent.
But the vast majority of torrents that contain copyrighted material aren’t officially uploaded.
The movie studios, record labels and e-book publishers who own the rights to the content don’t generally release it via torrents. They prefer to use other mediums – ones that can make them money.
And it’s that desire for money that motivates their war against torrenters.
Copyright holders go to great lengths to keep their media out of the hands of those who didn’t pay for it.
There’s the ubiquitous digital rights management, or DRM, for starters. It comes with media you purchase from places like iTunes, but it’s also present on streaming services like Netflix and Spotify.
DRM links the files you purchase to your account or device. You could upload them as a torrent, but nobody else would be able to play them – only you, the purchaser, can.
But DRM-free music and movies can still be obtained, and they’re widely circulated on torrent sites.
So copyright holders sometimes target entire torrent sites, usually with the help of authorities like the FBI.
Their attempts sometimes work: in 2016, the then-largest torrent site in the world, Kickass Torrents, was seized by the FBI.
But torrent sites argue that they’re not hosting any copyrighted content, simply indexing links to torrent files. This legal loophole allows many sites to continue operating.
So copyright holders typically go after individual torrenters instead. They do so by hiding in plain sight.
Torrenting and Copyright Monitoring
Anyone with a torrent client can download a torrent file and see the IP addresses of every peer. Those IP addresses can be traced back to specific cities and ISPs.
All the copyright holder has to do is find a torrent of its content, download it and record the IP addresses of the peers.
Typically, large organizations like the MPAA and the RIAA will be enlisted to help. Copyright trolls – companies that exist solely to find and sue copyright infringers – are also frequent hires.
Then it’s simply a matter of getting a subpoena to obtain subscriber data from ISPs.
The ISP can match the IP address and timestamp with the account that was using the IP at that time.
That account holder will then receive a letter from the ISP warning them not to download copyrighted material. Often, there’s a three-strikes rule in place: three warning letters and your internet service gets disconnected.
Many times, the account holder isn’t the person who downloaded the torrent. Kids, roommates or neighbors could be the actual culprits.
But all that matters is the name on the account. That person is liable for the copyright infringement, and will take all the blame from the ISP.
Copyright Troll Scare Tactics
Rather than having ISPs take care of torrenters for them, some copyright trolls try a different approach.
Once they’ve obtained your name and contact information from your ISP, they send you a threatening letter or email themselves.
The letter typically informs you that you’ve been caught illegally torrenting a certain piece of content.
It then demands that you pay a large sum (often tens of thousands of dollars) or you’ll be sued in court.
Some letters even try to appear as if they’re actual notices of intent to sue. These letters prey on those who don’t know what official court orders look like – a shady tactic that, unfortunately, works.
Usually, copyright trolls are bluffing and never actually sue those they demand money from.
But sometimes, torrenters do end up in court.
Copyright infringement, intellectual property theft, digital piracy… call it what you want, but it’s not usually a jailable offense.
That doesn’t mean that a torrenting-related lawsuit can’t have serious consequences.
In 2011, over 23,000 torrenters were collectively sued by a copyright troll, U.S. Copyright Group, for downloading the film the Expendables.
Each torrenter was sued for $150,000, the maximum amount allowed under the U.S. Copyright Act.
But the U.S. Copyright Group didn’t actually expect to get that amount from anyone. Rather, they anticipated that most people would opt to settle for a few thousand dollars instead.
That’s the same angle taken by movie studio Voltage Pictures on two separate occasions. The lawsuits targeted torrenters who downloaded the Hurt Locker – a total of over 27,000 people.
These torrenters also received settlement offers of around $3,000. By paying up, they hoped to avoid a lengthy lawsuit that could have resulted in even larger fines.
An undisclosed number of torrenters opted to settle in the Hurt Locker cases. But it was enough for the studio to repeat its original lawsuit two years later with new plaintiffs.
In both cases, the settlements were satisfactory for Voltage Pictures. The full lawsuits never made it to court; they were withdrawn before going to trial.
Recent Developments in Torrent Law
Copyright holders and trolls seem to be increasing their efforts to sue torrenters. In 2018, over 3,300 lawsuits were filed against torrenters in the USA, up from around 1,000 the year before.
But there’s good news to be found as well.
A torrenting case recently made it to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. District Judge Michael H. Simon determined that an IP address alone is insufficient to prove copyright infringement via torrenting.
The judge’s ruling acknowledged the fact that IP addresses can be used by multiple people without the account holder’s knowledge.
This sets the precedent that copyright holders and trolls need more than an IP address to successfully sue torrenters.
Hopefully, this ruling will deter copyright trolls from continuing their ugly lawsuits in the future.
How Can I Protect Myself from Torrenting Lawsuits?
You could download thousands of torrents and never get so much as an ISP warning letter.
Or you could get unlucky and end up in court over the first torrent you ever download.
One thing’s for sure: it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We don’t condone intellectual property theft and do not encourage you to illegally download copyrighted material. But if you choose to do so anyway, you should torrent as safely as possible.
There are several safety precautions you can take to protect yourself while torrenting. They’ll keep you under the radar of copyright trolls, overzealous rights holders and your ISP.
Use a VPN
A virtual private network, or VPN, has many privacy- and security-enhancing uses.
It encrypts your internet traffic so that nobody – hackers, ISPs, governments – can see what you do online.
In workplaces, schools and countries with internet censorship, it unblocks prohibited websites and apps.
And it lets you mask your IP address with one from anywhere in the world, be it one town over or the other side of the globe.
It’s this last feature that’s so valuable to torrenters.
When you use a VPN, all of your traffic is rerouted through your chosen VPN server before going to its destination. Anybody on the other side sees the VPN server’s IP, not your real one.
That means that when you download a torrent, your peers will never see your real IP.
You’ll appear as if you’re torrenting from the location of your choice, with an IP address to match.
This allows you to hide your identity and throw copyright trolls off your trail altogether. Typically, they only target torrenters in a certain country, so just pick a different one and you’re golden!
Choosing the Best VPN for Torrenting
When you choose a VPN for torrenting, there are several criteria you’ll want to look for.
First of all, make sure that the provider allows torrenting.
This sounds obvious, but some prohibit it; others only allow it on certain servers.
You’ll also want to check if there’s a bandwidth cap on torrents and, if so, what it is. If you typically exceed that cap, you’ll need to choose a different provider.
Look for a provider with excellent speeds. Because VPNs encrypt and reroute your traffic, they tend to slow down your internet.
As any torrenter knows, slow speeds are unpleasant at best and debilitating at worst. Picking a VPN provider that’s known for its high speeds is the best way to avoid these pitfalls.
Finally, check the provider’s jurisdiction and logging policy.
Some countries (Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland) are friendlier towards filesharing and internet privacy than others (the USA, the UK, Japan).
This is important because copyright trolls can trace your VPN server’s IP and send the provider a warning letter.
Or worse, your provider could be ordered by a court to reveal your identity.
You don’t want your information getting subpoenaed or passed on to the troll. So make sure your provider doesn’t have it to begin with.
Our Top VPNs for Torrenting
If you’ve decided to get a VPN for torrenting, these providers are a great place to start your search.
They’re all extremely torrent-friendly, with customer-first privacy policies and fantastic speeds.
TorGuard was created as a means to torrent privately and securely, and it’s perhaps the most famous VPN among torrenters. It keeps no logs and also offers a SOCKS5 proxy for fast yet private torrenting.
Private Internet Access is one of the most affordable VPNs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not high-quality. Importantly for torrenters, it supports port forwarding on some servers, which lets you connect to more peers.
Get a Seedbox
A seedbox is like a remote computer designed specifically for torrenting. Essentially, it’s a portion of a server with a torrent client installed on it.
You access the torrent client through a web interface and add torrents to it just like you normally would.
The torrented files are stored on the seedbox. Some seedboxes allow you to stream them directly from the server, or you can download them to your computer via FTP.
Like a VPN, a seedbox changes the IP address that’s shown to a torrent’s peer list.
It also has the benefit of providing extra storage, so you can seed and leech as much as you want.
Additionally, seedboxes often use top-of-the-line internet connections, so your download and upload speeds could rise dramatically.
As with VPNs, you’ll need to choose your seedbox carefully. Again, look for zero-logs policies, P2P-friendly jurisdictions and good speeds (plus adequate storage space and bandwidth limitations).
Switch to Private Trackers
Public torrent trackers like the Pirate Bay are littered with fake torrents and copyright trolls. Because anyone can use them, they’re much more likely to be targeted than private trackers.
Private trackers, as their name suggests, don’t let just anyone in. Usually, you have to be invited by an existing member or go through an application interview.
In these interviews, you’ll be quizzed about your torrent knowledge, from file types to quality measures to client settings.
If you pass, you’ll be let in; if not, you’ll have to try again later.
Once you’ve gained access, you’ll need to maintain an adequate ratio – that is, the amount you’ve seeded versus the amount you’ve leeched. Private trackers mandate that you give back to the torrent community.
It’s not for the faint of heart or the technologically-challenged, but if you’re up for it, go for it!
Private trackers tend to have much higher-quality torrents, great communities and far fewer copyright trolls lurking around.
There are many private trackers out there, devoted to both general media and niche interests. Some of the biggest ones include Bibliotik (for e-books), PassThePopcorn (for movies), Redacted (for music) and BroadcastTheNet (for TV shows).
Choose Your Torrents Wisely
If you don’t have the budget for a VPN or seedbox and can’t snag an invite to a private tracker, don’t worry.
You can still protect yourself while torrenting.
It’ll just require a bit more effort than you might be used to.
As we discussed earlier, safe browsing is key to safe torrenting. Always activate your ad blocker, antivirus and firewall before visiting torrent sites to protect yourself from malware.
When choosing torrents, look for verified uploaders and good ratings, if your site provides them.
Comments are extremely helpful as well. They can help you verify torrent safety and quality.
Examine the torrent carefully before downloading and make sure everything adds up. The new James Bond movie in 4K shouldn’t be just 200MB – download that and you’ll probably regret it.
Look at torrent file lists as well. Albums should have the appropriate number of tracks; TV seasons, the appropriate number of episodes. File lists that don’t line up with supposed contents are a huge red flag.
Finally, try to stay away from the most recent and popular torrents if you can. Those are much more likely to have copyright trolls hanging out in the peer list.
It sucks not having access to the latest movies and TV episodes, but waiting a few extra weeks could save you from a huge headache later on.
To Sum It Up
So, is torrenting illegal? No, it’s not.
Is torrenting copyrighted material illegal? Yes, almost always.
Will you get in trouble? It’s very possible, though to varying degrees.
How can you stay safe? By downloading wisely, maintaining good security practices and getting a VPN or seedbox.
We may not endorse your downloading habits, but we wish you luck at staying secure and private while torrenting. Legal or not, it’s going to happen – might as well do it right!
Summary: The torrenting protocol itself doesn’t break the law, but you might if you use it to download copyrighted material. You could get away with it… or you might end up in court.