Is Torrenting Illegal? How to Not Get Caught While Torrenting
Torrenting, or using a torrent software to download, is by itself not illegal. It is what you download or upload that can make torrenting illegal. For example, downloading cam prints of new movies from torrent sites is considered an act of piracy and therefore illegal. But sharing open-source apps and public domain media may not be.
Torrenting’s legality broadly depends on what you download or upload. However, it is still not as simple as understanding the copyright status of the content in question. One could still be uploading open-source software on The Pirate Bay and making money out of it. That would also make the activity illegal.
As complex as this all may sound, we don’t have to dive deeper to stay cautious. We just need to understand if the type of torrenting that we do is illegal or not. And that boils down to knowing whether torrenting or pirate streaming falls on the wrong side of the law.
Here’s a detailed look at web torrenting, its legal standpoints, and the lawsuits it can trigger. As mentioned above, this guide is for you if you regularly download or stream via torrent sites. Uploaders and seeder groups who identify with The Scene (warez) may not find this useful.
What is Torrenting?
Torrenting is a type of file-sharing system that uses the BitTorrent protocol and which takes place in a peer-to-peer (P2P) network. Users can simultaneously download and upload files among themselves through this exchange network with their devices acting as storage.
Torrenting can also be considered a type of file exchange over the internet. Instead of downloading a file from a website or server, you download it from a user or group of users in a torrent network.
You can torrent digital content of any file or format without any size restriction. The most common types of torrented content are:
- Movies, TV shows, web series, and videos
- Ebooks, magazines, newspapers
- Video games
- Software applications
This versatility makes torrenting one of the most popular methods to download and upload media over the internet. Since the launch of the BitTorrent protocol in 2001, torrenting has only expanded. Despite easier solutions available today, it is still the most popular medium for large file transfers. The advantage of low bandwidth usage is a definite pull.
Another reason for its popularity is piracy. As I have discussed below, torrenting is near synonymous with piracy.
Just take a moment to think if you’ve ever used the torrent system to share something (like a song) with a friend. The answer is most likely a no, right? Why choose torrent when you could simply email or WhatsApp it, or better, ask them to stream it on Spotify or Apple Music?
It reinforces the fact that torrenting has unfortunately reduced to sharing copyrighted content. Today, it is the most common method used for the distribution of pirated media such as movies, music, software, and ebooks. It gives torrenting a bad name, not to mention the need for us to be cautious as potential torrenters.
Usage of the Word “Torrent”
The word “torrent” could mean anything, such as:
- The torrent system itself (noun)
- To download or upload something via the torrent system (verb)
- A *.torrent file that contains information about the content, tracker, seeds, and peers (noun)
- To pirate something digitally (verb)
The word can be used interchangeably across the parts of English speech. The dictionary definition of “torrent” is “a strong and fast-moving stream”, which is one way to describe what happens in a torrent system. Notably, the word “torrent” is a contraction of the term “BitTorrent”.
In our context, it is important to note that torrenting can mean uploading, downloading, or both. Technically, the torrent system involves both uploading and downloading by design as I’ll explain in detail in the next section.
Since there are more people who download stuff via torrenting, it is often incorrectly attributed to only downloading.
Is Torrenting Illegal?
No, torrenting as a system of sharing content is not illegal. However, torrenting copyrighted content without permission is mostly considered illegal. Depending on your country’s laws, you may land in trouble if you’re caught torrenting pirated content. This includes downloading movies and TV shows on your computer.
It’s not torrenting that puts you in trouble though. It’s the downloading or uploading, regardless of how you do it. To put it in another way, you may face legal heat if you’re caught downloading copyrighted content from anywhere, and not just torrents.
In the United States, it is illegal to both upload and download copyrighted content. If you’re caught, you may face prosecution. On the other hand, in some European countries, only uploading is illegal. Downloading pirated content for personal use is allowed in those countries.
In the online world, torrenting is often always attributed to sharing of copyrighted content. When someone says they depend on “torrents” for new movies, in all probability they mean downloading it through such a system.
Therefore, to avoid landing in legal trouble, you should be more worried about what you’re downloading than how.
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How Does Torrenting Work?
Torrenting can be best explained using an example. Assume that you are a part of a torrent network because you want to download a file. Five other users already have the file fully on their devices. This group of users is called a swarm of seeders.
To download the file, you have to run a *.torrent file on your torrent software. This file contains information about the torrent content and its tracker among other things.
The torrent software (such as uTorrent) would send a ping to the swarm via the tracker. This is primarily to get the IP addresses of the seeders. Momentarily, the software will start downloading the file from the seeders.
If a new user joins while you are downloading, they will follow the same process. The file will be downloaded from the original five seeders as well as you (a peer). This is where it gets interesting.
As I have mentioned above, users in a torrent network can download and upload simultaneously. So, when a new user (peer) joins, you will effectively play the role of both a peer and a seeder. That is, downloading from the five seeders as well as uploading whatever you have downloaded to this new user. The uploading part is famously called seeding.
Downloading and uploading are a part of torrent by design
While you were only intending to download the file, the system also made you an uploader. This is how torrent works by design, which is missed by a lot of users. And that’s how they end up getting warning emails from their ISPs, settlement letters, or court summons.
Note: In several countries, this tricky feature of torrenting (automatic uploading) has led to several torrent lawsuits.
This process of file sharing within a network of seeders and peers is also called peer exchange. It is what happens when you download a Marvel movie torrent file from 1337x and run it on uTorrent. As soon as the movie is finished downloading, uTorrent will automatically start seeding the file back to the swarm. When a new user joins, they will get a part of the movie file from you.
Pro Tip: Stop/pause the torrent or limit upload bandwidth on your BitTorrent client to avoid automatic seeding.
Is Torrenting Safe?
Yes, torrenting is safe and legal if you stick to sharing open-source, free, or public domain media from reputable websites.
For example, it is safe and legal if you torrent an image that is licensed under fair use. In comparison, it is illegal to download a Marvel movie from The Pirate Bay.
Why is BitTorrent unsafe and illegal? Because:
- Copyrighted content being shared by someone who probably does not have permission to do so,
- You are getting it for free, and
- The person who shared it may be illegally earning money in the process.
There are a lot of moving parts in torrenting, which can make it intrinsically illegal. The problem is that no one uses the torrent system to download a Creative Commons image or a 50-year-old film available in the public domain.
People use torrents to download hi-res BluRay prints, lossless music files, and ebooks. People torrent because it’s free.
Now, every single one of those activities is illegal as they cause copyright infringement. This means by downloading those content pieces, you are essentially infringing upon the copyright owner’s rights. This is a serious criminal offense in a lot of countries. Thus, there is a high chance that you can get caught torrenting.
Additionally, from a web safety angle, torrenting can also invite cyberattacks through viruses, malware, and ransomware. Torrent sites are notoriously unsafe and known to harbor infected torrent files. If you download such a loaded torrent file into your system, you risk infecting your device too.
What Makes a Torrent Illegal?
While you try to safeguard yourself from the perils of torrenting, it is a good idea to understand its different aspects. You should know what makes torrenting illegal so that you can avoid committing them.
Here, I attempt to list out everything that can land you in trouble while torrenting if you’re not cautious enough:
- Downloading or uploading copyrighted materials
- Downloading free or open-source material hosted on a site with ads
- Seeding after downloading a copyrighted material
- Downloading copyrighted material and sharing it with friends, family, strangers
Incidentally, according to copyright laws in the US, pirate streaming is not considered illegal. This means using platforms like Popcorn Time to stream free movies do not come under the purview of illegal torrenting.
Further, according to American lawmakers, the difference has to do with the storage of the final copy (aka lasting copy).
When you’re streaming a movie, the file is only temporarily saved on your device. After the stream is complete, it’s believed to be auto-deleted. In the case of a torrent download, the file remains with you. In other words, you continue to own a copy of the movie, thereby infringing the movie owner’s rights. Thus, attracting legal repercussions under both DMCA and NET.
In What Countries Is It Legal to Torrent?
To find out if torrenting is legal or not in your country, we need to first understand how it sees piracy. To reiterate, in our context, torrenting means downloading copyrighted content for free from torrent sites.
It is hard to keep track of the changing copyright laws of all countries. However, we have tried our best to bring out information that will give you a good picture of how torrent-friendly your country is.
Country-Wise Legal Status of Torrenting
Following is a table that lists countries that outlaw and penalize, allow, or permit torrenting of copyrighted content.
|United Arab Emirates
Notes: In the table, torrenting refers to downloading copyrighted content and saving it on your device. This is not an exhaustive list. If you don’t find your country in the table, assume the worst.
Copyright laws in most countries fall in the gray area. For example, the Netherlands has a law that states you can download copyrighted content for personal use. However, reading more into the law, you’ll find out that there are more conditions. Now, would you still want to risk it?
Similar is the case with European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) countries. Some like France have strict copyright laws that outright ban torrenting. However, neighbors Spain and Poland have lenient rules against piracy.
If you’re from a country that outlaws torrenting, you should avoid doing it. While the strictness of enforcement matters, downloading is not worth the risk. Another critical point is that commercial piracy (where one earns money through illegal content) is illegal almost everywhere.
What Happens If You Get Caught Torrenting? (Legal Issues, Penalties, Prison)
Here’s what can happen if you get caught while torrenting:
- Your ISP can warn/blacklist you and refuse to provide internet service
- Court summons (subpoena) via the copyright owner
- Criminal charges via court (lawsuit)
- Demand for damages if convicted (more than $10,000 on average)
- Prison time if convicted (three years or more on average)
- Heavy litigation fees
- Social, mental, and physical distress
If your ISP blacklists you, you can simply choose another provider. However, that’s not the case if you get accused of copyright infringement. It may start with a court asking you to appear for a criminal case filed by the copyright holder. The punishment for piracy can be extremely life-limiting with heavy penalties, jail, or both.
Note: Some countries use the three strikes policy, where your ISP will warn you three times if you get caught torrenting. The fourth time, you may face an ISP ban, fine, or court summons.
Big production houses in Hollywood are known to file cases against unsuspecting torrent users. These usually start at a few thousands but can go up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you’re not in a financial position to pay, you could also face jail time.
Thankfully, legal action for downloading copyrighted content for personal use is rare. Copyright owners tend to usually go behind torrent uploaders. However, some cases can spill over to downloaders as well.
Note: If you’ve received a court letter or legal threat, seek professional legal advice immediately.
5 Ways to Avoid Being Caught While Torrenting
Before we learn the tricks to stay safe while torrenting, let’s take a quick look at how you can get caught in the first place.
The most common (and perhaps the only functional) way to get caught red-handed while torrenting is via your IP address. When you participate in a P2P network, your IP address gets logged in the tracker. This is visible to anyone who’s checking the tracker for that particular torrent.
Note: Private trackers such as the now-defunct Demonoid claim to be safer as access is restricted to members.)
Copyright holders, law enforcement, and anti-piracy agencies regularly track high-profile torrents to nab seeders. They believe that those who actively seed (upload) a torrent are the main perpetrators. Or at least they can lead them to the real uploaders (who started the torrent).
These entities track IP addresses in torrent trackers and coordinate with ISPs to legally threaten their owners. Other methods of catching pirates are booby traps, physical raids, and social media surveillance.
IP address tracking is the most vulnerable part of the whole torrenting business. This means that if you want to avoid getting caught, you need to hide your IP. Here are five effective ways to do so.
Disclaimer: CyberWaters does not endorse downloading copyrighted content. The following information is for educational purposes only.
Use a VPN
The best way to avoid being caught torrenting is to use a virtual private network (VPN). As a privacy tool, it not only encrypts your connection but also hides your IP address. This dual action prevents your IP address from appearing in torrent trackers, swarm peer lists, and other public P2P databases.
Instead, an arbitrary IP address provided by the VPN will appear in place of your own. This will repel or cloud up any form of surveillance, thereby protecting you from legal troubles.
Torrenting with VPN safely:
- Install a high-quality VPN and switch it on.
- Connect to a VPN server. (Choose a torrent-friendly server if available.)
- Open your BitTorrent client and start torrenting.
NordVPN and Atlas VPN are considered some of the best VPNs for torrenting. Use a VPN throughout the torrent process, which means while:
- Searching for torrents on torrent sites
- Downloading content via a BitTorrent software
Use VPN features like split tunneling and kill switch for foolproof protection. Use the port forwarding feature to optimize torrent speed.
Set Up a Proxy
Another less-safer way to stay away from torrent-related snooping and litigation is to use a proxy connection. You can easily set up a proxy on your BitTorrent client to tunnel your torrent traffic.
All you need is a proxy IP address, port number, and authentication details (if you paid for it). Compared to VPNs, proxies are less safer but they still do the job.
Proxy settings in uTorrent
Avoid Seeding or Uploading
If you cannot afford a VPN or proxy, we suggest reducing your risk by avoiding seeding your torrents. Since most laws criminalize the uploading of illegal content, avoiding seeding can provide some relief. Although this is known as leeching in the torrenting world and is frowned upon.
Go to your BitTorrent app’s settings and block all uploads. You may also reduce upload bandwidth allocation to zero. This will stop all torrents from automatic seeding. Alternatively, just stop the torrent once it has been downloaded.
Pro Tip – Choose your torrent software wisely and update it regularly. Read our reviews to choose better.
Seeding your torrents can get you in legal trouble
Buy a Seedbox
Unlike what the name suggests, a seedbox is not just for uploaders/seeders. You can use it to download as well. The advantage is that the seedbox hosts all files on a server away from your location. This separates your IP address from the actual torrenting, providing you a safer way to torrent.
However, seedboxes require paid subscriptions and do not generally allow public trackers.
Avoid Public Trackers
This might not seem like a solution, but hear me out.
As I have mentioned above, public trackers logging your IP address is the main problem in torrenting. So, technically, you can avoid it by avoiding public trackers altogether. Sign up for a private tracker for a fee instead and enjoy all forms of content including exclusive and early-bird access.
EliteTorrent, PassThePopcorn, and IPTorrents are a few private torrent sites active today. Some of these may be invite-only.
Pirate streaming sites are also becoming popular as they remove the blame from you as soon as you finish consuming the content. This is with the assumption that a lasting copy of whatever you streamed is not saved on your device.
Answers to some common queries regarding torrenting, legal troubles regarding piracy, and VPNs.
Is torrenting safe?
Yes, torrenting is generally safe if you use a known BitTorrent client like uTorrent, download torrents from reputable sites, and follow basic web safety rules. Do not click on random links, do not download questionable content, and always use a VPN while torrenting.
With regards to safety from a legal standpoint, torrenting copyrighted content can land you in trouble if you get caught. You should read the copyright rules of your country carefully to avoid any consequences.
Will I go to jail for torrenting?
If you get caught downloading copyrighted content, you may face jail time, a heavy penalty, or both. While copyright owners usually target uploaders, torrent lawsuits may also include users.
What fine can I get for torrenting?
The penalty for torrenting differs according to copyright laws and jurisdiction. Our research suggests that you may be fined upwards of USD$ 10,000 on average if you’re convicted. Out-of-court settlements can prevent jail but the fine can still set you back. Piracy is globally seen as a societal menace, so don’t expect mercy if you get caught.
What should I do if I get caught torrenting?
If you get a legal threat, hire a lawyer immediately. They will help you verify the threat and suggest the necessary course of action. Do not pay or agree to pay any settlement amount to anyone. Chances are it may be someone posing as a law enforcer. Due to the shady nature of torrenting, there have been numerous cases of cybercrimes such as phishing, fraud, and torrent scams.
I received an email from my ISP about a file I downloaded via torrent. What should I do?
It is most likely a warning letter for torrenting. If the email suggests you to stop downloading, follow it. You may also seek professional legal help.
Is it important to hide your IP while torrenting?
Yes. Hiding your IP address while torrenting prevents you from getting caught. It also prevents potential legal proceedings as nobody will know what you downloaded and from where. Do note that your ISP may be able to figure out that you’re hiding your IP address.
Is torrenting illegal in the US?
Yes, torrenting copyrighted content without permission is banned in the United States of America. Uploading, distributing, and downloading for personal use are all outlawed in the country.
How will a VPN protect me while torrenting?
A VPN hides your IP address and encrypts your connection. As a result, while torrenting your IP address will not appear in public torrent trackers. This protects you from any potential litigation as it’ll be difficult to prove your torrenting activity.
I have stopped torrenting and uninstalled uTorrent. Am I still in trouble?
Torrent tracking usually happens only when the download or upload is in process. If you’ve stopped torrenting completely, there is no reason to worry about past downloads saved on your computer.
VPN and privacy researcher