When it comes to torrents, one of the most commonly asked questions is “Is downloading torrents legal or illegal?” Torrent clients, such as uTorrent Vuze and the official BitTorrent client, are used to download immense amounts of data on the Web, and there’s no question that much of it is illegal. Here we’ll talk about how torrent downloads work, when they’re illegal, and how to protect your privacy when you’re using them.
So What Is Legal and What Is 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. Using a torrent client and downloading torrents in itself isn’t illegal, as you could be downloading things that aren’t protected by copyright.
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 (unless the copyright-holder decides to make it free either temporarily or permanently, as is often the case with video games). The line gets kind of fuzzy here, since people ask themselves many different questions about their own country’s 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.
So 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.
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!
It’s handy to have a basic knowledge 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 (in contrast to downloading something from a central server like you’d find on Microsoft’s website, where they’ll know exactly who it is that’s downloading their products).
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.
Can You Get Caught?
Government agents and copyright trolls tend to snoop around the Torrent networks, and some of the more popular sites hosting Torrent files, downloading files and listing all the IP addresses they find under the Peers (downloaders) and Seeders (uploaders) lists. This will, of course, compromise your address eventually.
The actual number of people who get caught is miniscule, but if you want to secure yourself and don’t care much to contribute to the Torrent community, then you can disable seeding which stops your PC uploading files to the torrent network. Avid torrenters would call this selfish, and maybe they’re right, but you’re also covering yourself.
Another good option is to use a proxy or VPN, then set your torrent client to connect to peers through that. This essentially makes you anonymous by routing your connection through a different IP address.
Then there’s the onion routing network (Tor) that you can configure as a proxy for your torrent client. However, since the Snowden revelations it’s become known that even Tor has been targeted by the NSA and GCHQ for illegal activity. While the network is mostly secure, there have been incidents of these spy bodies attacking individual computers, so it’s not as anonymous as it once was.
Rest assured that torrenting does not equate to piracy. It does, however, provide a very convenient way to do it! The torrent protocol is just a clever transmission method for users to download files more easily. If you’re worried that you may be downloading something that’s against the laws in your country, ask below.
This article was first published in Jun 2013 and was updated in Nov 2017.
Image credit: Pirate Bay main page