Not all internet users know the legality of actions made on the internet, and with the internet being awash with illegal content, it can be difficult to distinguish between illicit and genuine websites. Torrenting is perhaps one of the biggest question marks because it is so widespread in its use, but is it legal and will you get caught?
Torrenting and Legality in a Nutshell
The short answer is that yes, torrenting is a perfectly legal and useful means of transferring files. However, the downloading of copyrighted material itself is not and can land you in trouble. So whilst torrenting itself is fine, many torrents themselves are actually illegal. Furthermore, torrenting is hardly a hidden activity; it can be easily tracked both by your internet service provider (ISP) and others monitoring torrent network activity. If you are conscious about privacy, measures can be taken to protect activity from prying eyes, irregardless of legality.
The Question of Legality
Because the BitTorrent protocol itself is perfectly legal, it is the activity using it that can land you in trouble. Clients themselves operate in a legal grey area where the legal onus therefore often falls on the users, rather than the operators, of torrenting websites. Although major trackers have undergone serious legal scrutiny — in some cases being blocked entirely by countries and ISP’s — legal action, warnings and punishment is primarily aimed at the illegal file sharers themselves.
When you torrent a file online, you do so either as a sharer (seed) or downloader (leech) of the file in question. Both activities fall into various categories of criminality. To download something illegally is a lesser crime than sharing the file. Yet, because those that share files usually do so under protection, the consequences can fall on those that download the material. After all, piracy is theft.
Will I Get Caught?
Prosecutions against torrent users is spasmodic and inconsistent. There have been users caught downloading many gigabytes of pirated movies who have gone to court and payed large settlements. However, the heyday of prosecution has largely waned due to the public’s poor reaction to large and — seemingly — unfair fines in show trials. That doesn’t mean that the campaign against piracy is over, it is has merely evolved.
Small businesses known as copyright trolls locate prevalent torrenters and their IP addresses, taking legal action against them on behalf of the copyright holder. These trolls then send out non-legally binding settlement letters to threaten hundreds of thousands of pounds in court, yet settling for only several thousand on follow-up. More likely, your ISP will issue its own penalties which typically begin with a warning, throttled internet connection (slowing down), a fine and, finally, the taking away of your internet connection.
Illegal torrenting is therefore a very risky business. Although the chances of serious legal action are slim, some form of punishment is still likely, particularly if you are pirating very recently released, popular and therefore conspicuous files like the latest big blockbuster or television franchise. Not only are these more likely to be picked up by copyright trolls, but copyright owners are in contact with ISPs to locate the illegal sharing of their files.
There are risks with any forms of piracy with very real legal consequences. Even if you are torrenting legally, however, you may like to consider a safer way to torrent files. The most convenient means of avoiding detection is to use a VPN. This re-routed your traffic through another server in another location, adding anonymity to your browsing.
Even outside of torrenting, VPNs are a convenient means of avoiding particular issues of privacy and censorship. However, VPNs should be good quality services, not the free and instant kind which similarly tracks and logs internet activity, and may even leak data. Furthermore, not all VPN services will tolerate torrenting because it can have legal ramifications on their own services. Needless to say, if you are sharing files legally outside of the legal grey area, you have nothing to fear from torrenting.