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What is Torrenting? Is it Legal and Safe?

By Tibor Moes / September 2022

What is Torrenting? Is it Legal and Safe?

Torrenting

Although torrenting has been around for over two decades, the concept is still a mystery to many. As it’s often mentioned on the same page with piracy, there are many misconceptions that give a bad rap to this activity.

In this article, you’ll learn about basic torrenting terminology and how the process works. Stick around for the potential risks and how to steer clear of them!

Summary:

 

  • Torrenting is peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing that cuts out the need for a middleman. Instead, users download directly from each other.
  • These users, called peers, can upload and download any file-type using a torrent client like uTorrent or BitTorrent.
  • This freedom to upload anything, has made torrenting a haven for piracy, where copyrighted movies, games and music are shared.
  • As long as you’re downloading non-copyrighted material, torrenting is completely legal.

Tip: Most users who download files on P2P platforms, choose to use a VPN service for their privacy. We advise using an antivirus scanner too, because you can’t be sure you’re not downloading malware.

What is Torrenting?

Torrenting something simply means sharing or downloading files through the torrent network. This is a peer-to-peer file-sharing network that allows the transfer of large amounts of data efficiently.

What makes torrenting different from regular downloads? Instead of downloading a complete file from a hosting server, you’re getting small components of the file from multiple sources. Once you’ve collected all the components (called packages), your file will be ready, and you can continue sharing the file so others can easily download it as well.

Any type of file can be torrented, from PDFs through video files to software. While this makes torrent sites an invaluable archive, it also gives way to piracy. Before streaming services became so widespread, you might have torrented a movie or two yourself. Don’t worry; we won’t tell, but you’ll find the legal implications of torrenting copyrighted content further below.

What Is a Torrent?

The word “torrent” is often used to refer to the files you’re uploading or downloading using the torrent network. However, torrents are actually the files that contain the metadata about the download.

Torrent files don’t contain the files you’re trying to access, but they are something like a table of contents. Files with the .torrent extension instruct your computer to find and collect the data needed using special software called a torrent client.

How Does Torrenting Work?

Sharing files via torrent relies on a decentralized network called BitTorrent. This P2P sharing protocol is used by torrent clients to manage torrent files. Logically, to access this network, you need to download and install a client first.

The first and most popular torrent client to this day is also called BitTorrent, which is free to download from the company’s site.

Big words like “decentralized sharing network” might sound complicated, but torrenting actually works in a rather simple way. Once you download a torrent file and let your torrent client access it, you start receiving pieces of the file from other users (or peers) on the network who are sharing it.

Torrenting vs. Regular Download

The decentralized nature of torrenting makes transferring large files faster and more convenient than normal upload and download. This is because when you upload a file on a server, the download speed will be limited by how fast the server is. If many users try to access the file at the same time, they may also exceed the bandwidth.

In addition, if you’ve ever tried downloading a large file with a slow internet connection, you know that server speed isn’t the only issue. Disruptions in the connection can lead to a failed download, and you’ll have to start it all over again.

This is no concern when torrenting. Torrent files aren’t hosted on a server but are found on the computers of users. The data transfer happens directly from peer to peer. The more peers are sharing the same file, the faster your torrent client will collect the file’s pieces and the faster the download will be.

You don’t have to worry about a broken internet connection ruining your download, either. You can pause and resume your download without losing progress.

What Are Seeding and Leeching?

As we mentioned, torrenting can mean both the action of uploading and downloading torrented content. However, there is more torrenting vocabulary you might want to learn. If you ever listened in on others talking about torrenting, you probably caught the words “seeds” and “leeches” in the conversation.

Seeders are users who already have the file’s packages and are distributing them to other users. Seeding basically means uploading a file to the network.

On the other hand, leeching refers to downloading a torrent. Leeches are users who are receiving data from seeders but aren’t yet sharing in return.

Remember that sharing is the core of torrenting. Therefore, once you’re finished with your download, you should seed the torrent so that other users can also download it. Users who fail to do so and who download disproportionally more than they upload are called leeches because they don’t contribute to keeping the system alive.

What Are Torrent Trackers?

If the files you can download by torrenting are technically located on other people’s computers, how will you find them? Torrent trackers are the answer to this question.

Torrent trackers are websites where you can browse torrent files. They look much like a search engine when you first see them. These websites index torrent files that users upload, allowing other users to find them easily. However, torrent trackers are actually more than just search engines, and it’s not all the same which one you use.

A torrent tracker is also a server that keeps track of essential torrent information, like the number of seeders sharing the files, etc. They do so by tracking torrent users and collecting data about the files. Your torrent client will use this data to connect you with the peers sharing the file you’re looking to download. Torrent sites are thus both databases and a way for peers to find each other and share files more easily.

Not all torrent trackers are created equal. Torrent sites with good servers might mean a slightly faster download speed. In addition, a torrent site can be public or private. Both of these options have their pros and cons.

Public Trackers

Public trackers are servers that anyone can use. You don’t need to register or log in to these websites in order to access their databases or download torrent files from them. Therefore, these trackers have a very large user base.

While this might mean that your file will have many seeders, public trackers aren’t always ideal. Too many users trying to grab the same file, for instance, can lead to a slower download speed. Since these sites aren’t regulated in any way, you might also come across torrent files without any seeds.

Additionally, anyone can upload files to public trackers, so users need to be careful not to download any malicious content.

Private Trackers

Private trackers, as their name suggests, are a bit more exclusive. Only registered users can access these sites, and registration isn’t simply clicking the signup button. Many private trackers are invitation-based. They also vet their users for trustworthiness to keep the website’s standards high.

Consequently, private trackers have fewer users than public trackers. Higher security also comes with some rules. Members of private trackers are often required to seed a set amount for each of their downloads to keep the files available. If you fail to fulfill these criteria, you may get banned and lose access to the site.

Nevertheless, private trackers offer higher-speed downloads, which justifies the rules mentioned above.

Is Torrenting Illegal?

The short answer is no; despite popular belief, torrenting itself isn’t illegal. Torrent clients are software made by legitimate companies, and using them doesn’t mean you’re breaking the law. However, what you torrent can change the answer to this question.

Whether torrenting is legal or illegal depends on the type of content you download or share and whether it’s being shared without the owner’s consent.

When Is Torrenting Legal?

In the eyes of the law, torrenting isn’t different from regular file sharing. Most people share files in one way or another every day. You won’t get in trouble for downloading the images your cousin shared with you through Google Drive. Similarly, you won’t get in trouble for torrenting an obscure, out-of-print textbook you need for your thesis, either.

Using a BitTorrent client to download files that aren’t shared without the copyright holder’s consent isn’t illegal anywhere in the world. As long as you don’t upload files you obtained illegally or don’t hold the rights to, you will be fine.

When Is Torrenting Illegal?

Torrenting is illegal when it’s used to share copyrighted content. Although this sounds straightforward, it isn’t always obvious what content is legal to download and what isn’t. In addition, copyright laws vary greatly from place to place.

In some countries, downloading certain types of copyrighted material for personal use is allowed. For instance, in Canada, you can download music with relative confidence that you won’t get in trouble for it. Canada’s Copyright Act allows copying “onto audio recording” for private use. In the Netherlands, you shouldn’t torrent software, but other types of content are fine for personal use.

In other countries, including the U.S., sharing copyrighted content is always illegal, whether through torrenting or any other means.

Can I Get In Trouble for Torrenting?

As long as you’re not dealing with illegal content, there’s no reason to worry. However, if you happened to download and seed the newest Disney movie by mistake, we’re talking about copyright infringement, which is punishable by U.S. law.

There are two laws in the U.S. that are relevant when it comes to torrenting copyrighted material.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)

According to this law, it is illegal to create and/or distribute copyrighted material electronically. Therefore, this law applies to uploaders and websites that host copyrighted content illegally. In addition, under this law, internet service providers are also required to take action against their users if they discover illegal activity.

The No Electronic Theft Act (NET Act)

The NET Act was implemented in 1997 against online piracy. It applies to users who download copyrighted content, like movies, TV series episodes, music, video games, software, etc., illegally.

How Will I Get Caught?

Remember what we said about torrent trackers? These sites track users and collect their data. This means that your data – including your IP address – is recorded in the process, too. You might run into trouble when those who monitor these activities notice something illegal. You should be wary of your internet service provider (ISP) and copyright trolls.

Your Internet Service Provider

Your internet activity isn’t invisible in front of your ISP. They both monitor and store their users’ data for anywhere from two weeks up to a year or more. This means they will know if you’re downloading torrents, too. Should they find out that you grabbed something you shouldn’t have, they might take action. In some countries, ISPs are required by law to let their users know they have been caught.

Copyright Trolls

Internet service providers aren’t the only ones that might snoop on your activity. There are businesses specifically created to track down copyright infringement and make money off these cases. These so-called “copyright trolls” monitor the BitTorrent network to find illegal activity. Then, they seek out the person who downloaded something illegally using their IP address that is clearly visible on the network.

What Happens if I Get Caught?

Although serious consequences aren’t very likely, there’s a chance that downloading copyrighted material will put you in a sticky situation. What will happen to you highly depends on the circumstances. In the U.S., the consequences can be as small as your ISP throttling your internet speed as a warning. On the other end of the spectrum, those breaking the law can end up with a hefty fine or even a prison sentence.

Generally, at first, you’ll receive a letter or other sort of notification from your ISP. As said, they might also throttle your internet speed, ban you temporarily, or fine you as a punishment. After the second warning, the repercussions might be more severe.

Although a torrent user going to court isn’t very likely, multiple warnings mean that the copyright owner can start a criminal proceeding. This can result in a fine of up to $250,000 or a prison sentence of up to five years. Although such cases are rare these days, the scenario isn’t entirely impossible.

Copyright trolls might use other tactics to intimidate those who have been caught in their trap. They might seek out your ISP to learn your identity. Then, they will threaten you to sue you for an outrageous amount unless you pay a settlement. It’s best to seek legal advice if you receive a threatening letter from a copyright troll.

Seeding vs. Leeching

As mentioned above, different laws apply to those who share copyrighted content illegally and those who simply download it. In the case of torrenting, this means there is a difference between seeding the files and merely leeching them.

Uploading or seeding something you don’t own is considered a more significant crime than just downloading files. Although the activities fall into different criminal categories, both are illegal.

Streaming vs. Torrenting

Downloading copyrighted material is illegal, but what about streaming it in your browser? As streaming has become what media is all about today, many choose this option over torrenting and risking a DMCA notice. However, while illegal streaming may be more difficult to track down than a download, it isn’t without risks, either.

Pirating content through streaming is a topic that’s still in a grey area in U.S. law, but you don’t want to test your luck. Websites that host illegal content may be logging IP addresses, which makes you just as vulnerable as torrents do. In addition, remember: your ISP sees your activity anyway.

What Are Some Legal Uses of Torrents?

Torrenting is an efficient file transfer method that comes in handy when large files need to be distributed. Consequently, many businesses utilize torrents internally, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Lionsgate, and others. In the U.K., even the government has found uses for BitTorrent when sharing large amounts of data with the public.

But that’s not all. There are several other legitimate uses of BitTorrent, including the following.

  • Downloading game updates

  • Syncing files between devices

  • Distributing public-domain media

  • Updating operating systems

  • Archiving websites

Is Torrenting Safe?

So, as long as you don’t touch illegally shared copyrighted materials, you’re safe from the law. But are you safe from other cyber threats? The question of whether torrenting is safe isn’t as easy to answer as a simple yes or no.

Torrenting, just like any other type of download, comes with certain risks. You can avoid most of them by being mindful of your internet security and privacy habits.

Basically, torrenting is as safe as the files you download. As long as you’re certain that the files’ source is trustworthy and are using a high-quality torrent client, you shouldn’t come across any issues. The internet is full of pitfalls, and someone with little experience can run into trouble, though. Here are the risks you should be aware of.

Malware

Grabbing the wrong torrent file can put your computer and personal information at risk. Torrent sites can be teeming with malware. This is especially true for public trackers, where anyone can upload anything without being subjected to thorough screening.

Bundled with the file you wanted to download, you may get a nasty virus. Since most torrent clients don’t scan the files for you, you might not even notice that something isn’t right until your download is complete and your device is already infected.

Adware

Another pesky bug torrenting can infect your PC with is adware. If you download a less reliable torrent client, don’t be surprised if your computer starts acting weird. Adware will cause constant popups that will turn your browsing experience into a nightmare.

Lack of Privacy

Torrenting without hiding your IP address exposes your data to copyright trolls and cyber criminals. This isn’t only a concern when you’re downloading copyrighted materials. Torrent files can also carry scripts that will allow hackers to access your PC and monitor your activity.

Risk of Piracy

Many torrent sites operate in a legally gray zone and may host illegal content. Unless you’re sure what you’re downloading is in the public domain, an innocent mistake can lead to a scary warning from your ISP.

How to Stay Safe While Torrenting

Being aware of the risks is only half the story. Learning how to mitigate them is just as important. Here are a few tips for staying safe while torrenting.

Choose a Reliable Client

As mentioned, picking the wrong torrent client can easily make you regret you started this endeavor. Never download this piece of software from an unofficial source. It’s always better to stick with one of the most popular free options, like BitTorrent and uTorrent. You can also opt for a paid client that will add a layer of security to all your torrent downloads by scanning files beforehand.

Use a VPN

Roaming the internet with a fully visible IP address can invite trouble. Using a reliable VPN that boosts online privacy is always recommended, not just when torrenting.

VPNs reroute your internet traffic so your real location will no longer be visible. They also encrypt your traffic so that no one will know what you’ve been up to. Your ISP won’t be able to snoop on you, while hackers and other cyber criminals will be left with tracks they can’t follow.

Nevertheless, just any VPN won’t cut it. You need a secure VPN that offers ample protection and doesn’t log your activity.

Know the Source

The most important step to prevent your PC from getting infected with malware is only downloading files from reliable uploaders. Always check the comments under the file you want to download to see what other users have said about it. Files with many seeds are less likely to be misleading, but these are also more strictly monitored by copyright trolls, so choose wisely.

Run an Antivirus

To be extra sure of your file’s trustworthiness, it’s highly recommended that you also scan it with a good antivirus program before opening it. A torrent can contain multiple files, and it’s easy for a virus to slip in. Generally, you want to be wary of .exe and .bat files, but it wouldn’t hurt to check every single download regardless of its file type.

How to Download Torrents

Torrenting works in a very intuitive way which makes it user-friendly. The torrent client does the hard lifting for you. Here’s how to download torrents safely and securely.

1. Download a Torrent Client

Choose a good torrent client and install it on your PC.

2. Enable your VPN

It’s recommended that you use a VPN for your download. If you already have a torrent-friendly VPN, open it and connect to a server. Picking a country where P2P sharing is legal is a good idea.

3. Seek Out a Tracker

Next, visit the torrent site of your choice and search for the file you want to download. You might find multiple download options. Pick an option that has many seeders for a faster download speed. Don’t forget to verify the reliability of the uploader and read the user comments.

4. Download the Torrent File

Once you’ve ensured the quality of the file, click the download button.

5. Open the File With Your Torrent Client

Open the torrent file using your torrent client if it didn’t open automatically. The download process will begin if seeders are available.

6. Be Patient

Depending on the file size and the number of seeders available, your download may take a while. Be patient and check back once in a while. Be aware that once your download is complete, the client will automatically start seeding unless you tweak your settings.

Why is my torrent not downloading?

If you followed the steps above but your download still hasn’t started, consider the following factors.

  • There are no seeders currently sharing the file

  • A network restriction is preventing your download

  • The torrent tracker is offline

  • Your firewall is blocking the activity

  • Your ISP doesn’t allow BitTorrent

Resources

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Will I go to jail for torrenting?

Torrenting isn’t illegal, but sharing content you don’t own the rights to is. In the U.S., punishments range from warnings through fines to up to five years in prison. Though it’s unlikely that you’ll go to jail for illegal torrenting, it isn’t impossible.

Should I use a VPN when torrenting?

Even if you’re only torrenting legal content, there’s no guarantee that you’re safe from cyber criminals. Using a VPN is always a good idea to boost your online privacy.

Will I get caught if I torrent?

Unless you use a VPN, your torrenting activity will be fully visible to your ISP and anyone else monitoring the network, so you can easily get caught.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most leading antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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