GUIDE

Is Torrenting Illegal? Is It Safe? Definitive 2017 Guide – BestVPN.com

Torrenting is tempting. A computer and an internet connection are all you need to download the latest movies, TV shows and music releases – all for free. Furthermore, certain websites give the impression that there are no legal issues or risks to worry about if you torrent.

This raises some big questions, which many people want answers to. For example, is torrenting legal? Is it safe? Is it worth the risk?

Before delving into the detail, let’s begin with some short answers to these questions.

Is Torrenting Legal?

Yes, torrenting is completely legal. However, in the vast majority of places, downloading and distributing copyrighted material is not.

Is Torrenting Safe?

Torrenting carries risks. If you torrent copyrighted material, there’s a chance the authorities will catch and punish you. There is also a risk of downloading infected files. However, there are steps you can take to increase the safety of torrenting, which we discuss in detail below.

Is Torrenting Worth the Risk?

This has to be a personal judgement call. At BestVPN.com we cannot condone piracy nor recommend it. However, statistics suggest that around 170 million people use BitTorrent every month – so it’s clear that a great many people think the risk is one worth taking.

With those answers out of the way, let’s delve into more detail about torrenting, and the legalities around it.

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What Is Torrenting?

what is p2p

Under normal circumstances when you download a file to your computer, such as a movie from iTunes or an application from Microsoft, you simply pull the file down from a server on the internet.

Torrenting is another means of downloading data files, but it works very differently. It uses a principle of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Instead of downloading a file from a server, you use software (such as uTorrent) that connects to various other computers spread across the public internet, downloading little bits of the file from each.

This process decentralizes the storage of the files (movies, games, TV shows, and so forth) that people wish to obtain. Before peer-to-peer file sharing became popular, websites containing copyrighted material would spring up for a while, then the authorities would discover them and shut them down. With no central servers to shut down, torrenting is far harder for authorities and copyright holders to clamp down on.

How Torrenting Works

To help you understand the technical process of torrenting, here’s a simplified run-down of how it works.

In peer-to-peer file sharing, etiquette dictates that as well as downloading the files you want (leeching), you should also contribute to the file sharing community by uploading files to others (seeding). This is the way that BitTorrent client software (like uTorrent) is set up to work and manage the process.

Say, for example, you download a popular new movie. Once the movie file is on your computer, you become one of many people able to seed the file to others. Other people can then download (leech) it in the future.

When you download (torrent) something, you’re not downloading it from a single location. Instead, the client software sits in the middle of the process. It manages all of the connectivity and reforms the file you want from the multiple seeds from which you are downloading. The same software also manages your connections with other people online who are leeching files from you.

To help people find torrents, websites spring up that compile lists of .torrent files. The authorities seek to close these websites down as swiftly as possible. Sites like the (now defunct) Kickass Torrents and The Pirate Bay are probably the best known. (You’ll find a detailed article on alternatives here.)

Is Torrenting Safe and Will You Get Caught?

It would be irresponsible of us to tell you that torrenting is completely safe. If you torrent copyrighted movies and music, there is a serious possibility you WILL be caught and face legal action. You should therefore take precautions to hide your location and identity.

what is p2p

Governments and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) work to make life difficult for people who torrent media files and pirate software. Some ISPs, in the UK for instance, block access to some torrenting-related websites.

Furthermore, The Daily Express has revealed a new alliance of content creators: the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE). This alliance is specifically tasked with working against online piracy, including the torrenting and streaming of copyrighted material.

How Do People Get Caught Torrenting?

It’s incredibly easy for ISPs and copyright holders to catch people who haven’t taken precautions sharing copyrighted material. We discuss these precautions below.

For starters, it’s very straightforward to see the IP addresses of people who are sharing files by seeding or leeching. It is easy to find this information within any torrenting client software.

Copyright holders and ISPs therefore only need monitor the activity on popular files to be led straight to the IP addresses of those downloading the files or making them available to others. This is enough information to lead to the front door of the person with the internet connection involved. It is also often sufficient to kick off a legal challenge.

Copyright Trolls

The popularity of torrenting, coupled with content creators’ strong desire to hold culprits to account, has resulted in a burgeoning industry for copyright trolls. These individuals or companies are sometimes referred to as the “ambulance chasers” of the digital copyright industry.

Copyright trolls track down people downloading copyrighted material. Some work independently. Others have arrangements with copyright holders, who support their efforts to secure settlements with people who have downloaded their copyrighted material illegally.

Copyright trolls essentially play a “numbers game.” They send out frightening legal letters to people they believe they have caught downloading illegal material. As the recipients of these communications usually are culpable, there’s certainly money to be made in this industry. Despite the opportunistic nature of this business, trolls do often manage to operate on the correct side of a legal grey area. Copyright trolls make it more likely that people torrenting will be caught out.

What Happens If You Are Caught Torrenting?

torrenting prison

If you are caught torrenting, you may receive a letter from your ISP ordering you to stop doing it. You may also have your connection speed “throttled down” as a punishment. (While it’s not widely admitted by ISPs, some throttle file sharing traffic by default anyway).

However, punishments can be far more severe than a slapped wrist and a slow internet connection. In India, they are talking about three-year prison sentences for people caught just visiting torrenting sites. In the UK, a 12-month custodial sentence was given to someone sharing copyrighted top 40 singles in 2016.

The authorities usually distinguish between those who make material widely available for torrenting (such as the individual imprisoned in the UK), and those who merely download an occasional file. The distinction is akin to the difference between a drug dealer and someone buying a little weed for personal use. That said, life-changing punishments are sometimes dished out. Fines can be huge as well, with plenty of reports of real-life six figure penalties.

VPNs for Torrenting & Other Precautions

With such severe potential ramifications, it’s perhaps difficult to understand why people choose to torrent software, music, and movies. However, the temptation of free access to all of the world’s digital media, combined with proven ways to reduce to chance of being caught, results in millions of people still torrenting every day.

BestVPN.com neither condones nor encourages torrenting when it involves copyrighted material. If you choose to do this despite the risks, there is a chance you could land in serious legal trouble.

If you wish to take some precautions to minimize your torrenting risks, you’ll want to consider the following:

1. Stay away from the very latest movies and audio albums. These are the releases that copyright trolls and rights holders will most want to protect. You can therefore expect them to be making proactive efforts to catch people sharing them illegally.

2. Use a VPN for torrenting, as recommended on this list. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) will shield your IP address and encrypt your internet traffic so your ISP cannot easily see what you’re doing.

VPN solutions are far from equal. When it comes to torrenting, you’ll want to choose a VPN with encryption that ensures the best possible privacy. You’ll also need to select a company that doesn’t maintain logs of your activity, and operates in a country where it’s not likely to be obliged to hand over details to your ISP or government. Our top 5 VPNs for torrenting list takes all of that into account.

3. Consider using Tor. The Tor anonymity network uses encryption and relay techniques to hide your activity. There are downsides, such as slower performance, and the fact that Tor’s “dark web” links put it on the government’s radar due to criminal associations. If you wish to stack up your anonymity, you may wish to consider using VPN and Tor together.

4. ALWAYS use a good antivirus product and thoroughly check any downloaded file. People don’t only share files for altruistic purposes. Some files come with a “bonus” in the form of a virus, Trojan or keylogger.

What About Streaming?

Streaming has started to phase out legal, commercial downloads of movies and TV shows. In much the same way, many former torrenting fans now prefer to stream their copyrighted content. Customised Kodi boxes make this easy and are particularly popular at the time of writing.

Legally speaking, nothing changes here. Streaming pirated content is still illegal, and there are still people out there whose goal is to catch people in the act. The UK government is currently taking a particularly hard line on Kodi users.

The precautions you can take are similar too, and you’ll find a guide to VPNs for Kodi here. BestVPN.com does not condone illegal streaming.

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Conclusion

As we said at the very start, torrenting is tempting. While it’s technically legal, downloading copyrighted material is not.

While we can’t and won’t condone illegal activity, many people are of the school of thought that small-scale file sharing is hardly the crime of the century. Many view it as akin to copying a cassette tape in the 1980s. This is why torrenting remains popular with millions of people.

Some people are caught and fined for torrenting. Some are even imprisoned. Millions of others torrent regularly (taking sensible precautions) and don’t get caught. The legal and moral judgement call is yours alone to make.


Ben Taylor Ben was a geek long before "geek chic," learning the ropes on BBC Micros, before moving on to Atari STs and IBM compatibles. He was "online" using a 1200bps modem before the Internet was even a thing. Now, after two decades in the industry, he writes about technology for various publications, operates a few websites of his own, and runs a bespoke IT consultancy based in London.

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