Anyone who knows their way around the internet realizes that snagging a movie or pricey software bundle at no cost is only a torrent away. That presents more than a moral dilemma. There is also online safety to consider and whether torrenting will draw attention from the authorities.
First of all, the activity of torrenting is not inherently illegal. The technology is simply a way to share content online. Where you can get into trouble is hosting, downloading or distributing copyright protected files. That includes most popular movies, music and software.
If you do that, you’ve stolen something as surely as if you walked into the local Walmart and sprinted out moments later with DVDs falling out of your pockets with a security guard in half-hearted pursuit.
As to whether it’s safe and the likelihood of getting caught, the answers are “not completely” and “there’s a chance.” Let’s talk about torrenting a bit before we see how legal or illegal it is. If you’re currently having trouble accessing P2P sites, you may want to check out our article on how to unblock torrent sites.
The Torrenting Process
Torrenting differs from regular downloading in one critical way. Rather than pulling an entire file from a single server, torrenting — also called bittorrenting — uses a peer-to-peer file sharing approach in which specialized software grabs small pieces of the file from dozens, maybe hundreds, of computers all over the world and assembles them into a full version.
A lack of centralized servers makes it hard to find and shut down any single host computer involved in criminal activity, but there are also legitimate reasons to use the P2P protocol, One is that the process can be faster than direct downloading, without overburdening servers. Despite it being synonymous with copyright violations, the bottom line is that simply using a P2P network does not make you a criminal.
We’re going to detail how President Bill Clinton’s signature on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act changed the copyright landscape in 1998. The legislation gave copyright holders, often music labels and film studios, a legal strategy with which to successfully pursue lawsuits against torrent operators, users and, sometimes, innocent bystanders.
Legal Problems for Torrenters
Whether engaged in illegal activity or not, the fact that so many lawsuits have targeted torrenting might make you rethink the wisdom of using a P2P network. Copyright holders have been relentless in pursuing actual and perceived violators with varying degrees of success.
Sometimes, torrenting operations try to take refuge behind the idea that copyright violation complaints should be targeted at users. Operators have long claimed to be nothing more than innocent cloud storage providers. One case involved Hotfile, a popular file-sharing website in 2011, against which a group of major film studios filed a lawsuit.
At the time of filing, the defendant had received more than 10 million takedown notices for hosted content, but paid little attention. Too much money was at stake. With thousands of users receiving at least three takedown notices, it was difficult for the service to argue that it had implemented a strict “repeat infringer” policy.
The day before a jury trial was set to begin, Hotfile settled the case for $80 million. Megaupload and Grooveshark were two more renegade torrent services targeted in the aftermath of the DMCA (read our guide to what Megaupload is).
The Innocent Bystander
There are also examples of people getting caught in their internet service provider’s rush to turn over account information related to the IP addresses of alleged pirates — except many weren’t customers when the copyright violations occurred.
Since IP addresses are recycled from departing to arriving customers, it seems to be a case of simple misfortune, not bad behavior.
A Minnesota woman was one such case, when the prevailing anti-piracy strategy included lawsuits against individuals instead of file hosts. After downloading 1,700 songs illegally, her error in judgment in rejecting a $4,500 settlement offer was followed by a court judgment against her that started at a $1.5 million fine and ultimately landed at $220,000.
The Artful Dodger
No entity has enjoyed (suffered) more time in the torrenting limelight than The Pirate Bay. Founded in 2003, this file sharing champ has racked up millions of dollars in default judgments to date and jail time for it founders due to copyright infringements, though it seems to have no intention of paying and the website continues to operate.
It is, however, being chased from server farm to server farm, while colleague KickassTorrents has been shut down completely. All this seems to do is encourage alternative torrent sites to spring up, so this fight is far from over.
Stay Safe While Torrenting
If you torrent with a standard connection, it’s easy for others to track you through your IP address. In addition to potential legal action from copyright holders, ISPs have been sending warning letters to customers who visit torrenting sites and may even throttle connection speed as punishment.
If you plan to take the plunge and wonder if there is a safe way to do it, we’d advise you to go with a liberal interpretation of the word “safe.” You could use a virtual private network, which is still legal, though for how long is anyone’s guess (read our best VPN for torrenting and best VPN for BitTorrent articles). Another option is to use cloud torrenting, which seems fairly promising.
However, even then a VPN is a smart investment. A provider creates an encrypted data connection that, for all practical purposes, renders your location invisible to anyone trying to snoop. The trick is to find a VPN provider that doesn’t log client activity and is located outside the participating countries in the Five Eyes: the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
With the act of visiting a torrenting website considered suspicious behavior, proceed at your own risk. Copyright violations can result in serious fines and imprisonment, though in general the threats are worse than reality. That said, you never know when you’ll become the rule rather than the exception.
If you want to explore the world of VPNs a bit further, check out our article on the best VPN options. Do you have thoughts on or experiences with torrenting? We’d love to hear them in the comments below. Thanks for reading.