A vast majority of the public understands that piracy is a violation of intellectual property rights laws and is illegal. Some question whether that is a legitimate reason to stop piracy, while others do not. Of course, such controversial issues should be left to other areas. Currently, torrent clients, such as uTorrent, are used to download immense amounts of data on the web, most of which is illegally acquired. What we will discuss here is what makes downloading torrent legal or illegal and what could possibly get you in trouble, in addition to some words about privacy with regards to torrents.
Let’s Start With Torrent Privacy
Whatever it is you’re doing is not any of my business. But it is my business to make sure you know just how “anonymous” you are in the torrent network. The short answer is: you totally aren’t!
I don’t really need to prove this, as I have a decent understanding of how the torrent protocol works. Theoretically you should have some level of privacy since you’re not downloading any data from one particular server. For example, if you download a file directly from Microsoft, you’re downloading from a central server. That server now has evidence that you downloaded the entire contents of the file.
But through the torrent system, you download directions to a file. That means that the torrent file is actually just a list of trackers and some hash codes. It doesn’t really prove that you downloaded the torrent file. What you do inside your torrent client is more important, and that’s all managed by a decentralized list of servers. Once you start the download of the actual file you want to get to, you end up downloading little pieces of the file from a bunch of people.
And here’s where the problem starts: Government agents have been known to snoop around these networks, downloading files and listing all the IP addresses they find under the “Peers” list. This will, of course, compromise your address eventually.
The best route to privacy, in this case, is to utilize something like the onion routing network and configure it as a proxy for your torrent client.
So, What’s Legal or Illegal?
The short answer: As long as the item is copyrighted and you don’t own it, then downloading it (for free) via torrent is illegal.
The long answer: This varies from case to case. Most countries have basic common laws against intellectual property theft. If a piece of music is copyrighted and you don’t own it, you can’t download it legally. The same goes for a movie, a game, or anything else you may want. The line gets kind of fuzzy here, since people ask themselves many different questions about their own countries’ laws.
In general, a copyright is registered to an individual or organization that creates something. This copyright has a time limit, usually equivalent to the lifetime of the creator and a set amount of additional years. Some copyrights are for life plus fifty years. Others are for life plus seventy years. Look up your country in the previous link if you’re unsure of your laws. Of course, your mileage may vary, as some things may not be protected by the law where you live, or copyright law may not be enforced at all.
Of course, you may want artwork from an individual who’s currently alive or has recently died. Here’s where it gets complicated: Some artists create works under a creative commons license (or other free distribution license), meaning that they give anyone the ability to freely distribute what they make. However, it’s difficult to make the distinction between these individuals and publishing companies. A simple web search may help, but you don’t always get the information you want that way. All you can do is be careful. Many national laws don’t care if you didn’t know that the work was copyrighted or not when prosecuting you for downloading something.
If you’re downloading a free Linux distribution through your torrent client, you don’t need to worry. But if you’re getting John Lennon’s “Imagine” from The Pirate Bay, you’re doing something that in all likelihood is breaking a law.
One thing for sure, torrent is not equal to piracy. The torrent protocol is just a transmission mean for users to download files more easily. It is the content (not the protocol) that makes the act illegal. When it comes to downloading through the torrent protocol, there’s no real way to stay completely safe. However, it remains one of the most effective peer-to-peer protocols in the world. If you’re worried that you may be downloading something that’s against the laws in your country, ask below!