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Are Torrents Legal?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A torrent is a file shared across a peer-to-peer (P2P) network of private computers, versus a file served from a website. Peer-to-peer networks make use of the Internet to channel communications through specific ports, but a P2P network is not part of the World Wide Web. It “piggybacks” the Internet to connect people interested in trading files from their personal computers. This type of file is not illegal by definition, though illegal materials can be exchanged in this way.

People who use torrents can upload original programs they’ve written, scripts, original musical compositions, or any other personal work for public consumption, and use this type of file to share their work with others. Freeware can also be uploaded, and is legal to do so, as long as this does not violate the program’s Electronic User License Agreement (EULA). Typically, a freeware EULA stipulates that the software cannot be re-engineered before being redistributed, and that the EULA remain intact and bundled with the program.

Many files shared in this way, however, are copyrighted materials shared without the owners' authorization or knowledge. Controversy between P2P proponents and opponents center around whether or not file sharing between private citizens constitutes fair use under the law, or a breach of copyright protections.

Torrents first came to the public's attention when Napster® was sued for its popular music-sharing P2P network. The original site, created by Shawn Fanning, operated from 1999 to 2001 before it was shut down by court order, and it later went bankrupt. The site acted as an index for the many P2P files available. The legendary rock band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre both sued the company along with several recording labels. Fanning lost the case, sold the company's assets, and Napster® re-emerged under new ownership operating as a pay service.

In the case of music torrents, many people argue that they have already purchased the music previously in some other form (LP, cassette, or CD) and simply want it in digital form without the hassle of ripping or transferring the music or buying it twice. Others simply like getting music for free. Regardless, uploading copyrighted material for public distribution is illegal, unless the copyright holder has granted permission.

Other illegal files found on P2P networks include commercial movies. In some cases, the movie file might be illegally obtained by using a handheld digital camera to film the screen as the movie plays, resulting in a low quality facsimile. Once an official DVD release is available, the DVD image might be ripped and uploaded for sharing, which is also illegal.

Another category of illegal torrents consists of uploaded shareware that has been tampered with to bypass trial period restrictions. In many cases, malicious hackers augment programs by injecting Trojans, viruses, rootkits, or other malware into the software as a payload, then share it through P2P networks for unsuspecting users to download and install. When the program is installed, so is the malware.

Unfortunately, the very nature of P2P networks perpetuates infected software and illegal file sharing, as participants must often share at least as many files as they download to maintain a 1:1 ratio. Otherwise, their bandwidth or download speed is usually throttled back. This is a failsafe measure to ensure participants contribute to the network. As a result, when downloading a file, the bits that are already downloaded are being uploaded simultaneously to other users who are also requesting that file. A user won't know if a file is infected until she or he has completely downloaded it and scanned it, and by then it has already been uploaded to several others. If the file is copyright protected, even if the user feels justified (legally or not) by having previously purchased the material, he or she will still be illegally re-distributing it to others in the download/upload process.

P2P networks are a highly successful, extremely popular way to exchange files between enthusiasts. Users need to be aware, however, that many available torrents are being illegally shared and many others are infected. A user's Internet Protocol (IP) addresses is also readily visible to all others on the P2P network, so anonymity is not an option.

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Discussion Comments
By anon309472 — On Dec 16, 2012

When I call in a classified ad to a newspaper, the items advertised are advertised per my specifications. In reality then, I own the copyright to the way the ad is phrased or stated, don't I? Of course, the newspaper somehow is able to legally distribute the contents of my copyright without paying me a cent for that. I am actually the one who pays them to distribute it for me, so that I am able to generate some sales or business for myself, from my original copyrighted 'ad' material.

Newspapers and publishing companies have done that sort of so-called 'illegal' practice for years without paying advertising, copyright holding, artist customers a dime, while old newspapers are uploaded online, shared, and are also free for copying, use in libraries and other places. I also owned quite an old collection of cassette tapes of radio music programs, VHS tapes of movies and television programs taped from the television. Imagine this: VCRs, tape recorders, numerous electronic products were lawfully, legally sold or promoted to me, a consumer, for specific use and intent, for the purposes of being able to copy the music, movies and other televised copyrighted products distributed to the public for my use, from the broadcasters, on purpose. I was not fined. VCRs and cassette recorders did not cost as much as computers and other electronic media does, nor did they run out or have to be upgraded so frequently.

Since I am unable to enjoy music and movies for free via the computer transmission equipment after such expense was put into such a piece of equipment, plus am able to conduct my own business, selling, buying, banking without the manipulation/intrusion/control via force without my consent, permission or knowledge, and since the publicizing of actual real laws that are comprehensible to me and to other regular citizen civilians, then what good is the heavy, expensive paper weight? Why do I need or want more problems in my life from the computer, and the Internet?

If ISPs and websites would simply ban all movies and music from websites unless and until the so-called 'copyright holders' authorize the free distribution, advertisement of and transmission of those materials, and/or pay the advertising fees costs that most people must pay for advertising products and so forth, to the websites and ISPs, then, maybe, without charging regular users such high fees, (newspapers are about 50 cents a copy, more or maybe less in some places?) and not continue to cause regular citizens so many problems and such high fees, maybe the good PR would enable them to make even more profits.

By anon309466 — On Dec 16, 2012

Why are there no publicly available websites where regular people are able to search and research to find out if movies, music and things other than 'books' have expired copyrights or not?

By anon309455 — On Dec 16, 2012

The 'original copyright holders' of the copyrights sometimes pay radio stations or television broadcast companies for the privilege of having their original materials publicized for them, generating more business for them, in the same way that those same copyright holders' sales increased from internet website and P2P publication or broadcast of their materials.

I do not see what the difference is, other than those who are the 'original copyright holders' made agreements or deals with radio stations and broadcasters in advance for certain specific materials of theirs to be publicized to the public, for free -- maybe.

By anon309452 — On Dec 16, 2012

"Uploading copyrighted material for public distribution is illegal."

For years, radio stations have some how 'uploaded' and broadcast copyrighted material for public distribution.

In the 'olden days,' people used to tape from radio stations to cassette tapes and VCR tapes were used to tape from publicly broadcast movies, television programs, and other copyrighted materials 'uploaded' or broadcast for 'public distribution.' How did those places get away with that? Seems like the radio stations and television stations themselves were supposed to be responsible for broadcasting, publishing, uploading the information to the public.

If websites or P2P 'networks' want to compile a collection or conglomeration of materials that they then make business from by broadcasting or publishing that material for public distribution from advertisers, then, maybe they need to come to some sort of agreement with the copyright owners of the materials, in the same way that radio, television uploaders or broadcasters do, without causing the public customer such problems.

By LoriCharlie — On Sep 13, 2012

@ceilingcat - Although Napster did facilitate illegal downloading, I think we should all be glad that it got so popular. Without Napster, I don't think record companies would have gotten into downloadable music when they did. They kind of had to, you know?

By ceilingcat — On Sep 12, 2012

I was just starting high school at the time that Napster came out, so I completely remember all of the hullabaloo surrounding it. I think a lot of the young kids who used Napster didn't realize we were downloading torrents, we just thought it was an awesome way to get free music!

At the time, I don't think I even knew that it was illegal to download music from Napster. After all, if it was illegal, how could it be so readily available?

Now that I'm an adult, I'm glad there are services where I can go to easily pay for and download music legally.

By Pharoah — On Sep 11, 2012

@SZapper - I had no idea some companies would shut down accounts for downloading illegal torrents. I wonder how they can tell that the torrents the person is downloading are illegal though? Because some legal material is available as torrents also.

By SZapper — On Sep 11, 2012

@anon281405 - I agree with you. Even if you don't suffer any legal consequences for downloading illegal torrents software, you might get in trouble with you Internet service provider. I have a good friend who is always illegally downloading movies, and she recently got a notice from her ISP that if she didn't stop, they would discontinue her service.

So by downloading illegal material, not only are you risking the safety of your computer you could also get your Internet shut off. I would rather just pay for everything than to have to worry about all of that.

By stl156 — On Sep 10, 2012

I actually wrote a thesis in high school about the future of music/movie downloading, and I am not surprised to find that my predictions are mostly coming true. This was right as iTunes was starting.

My biggest point was that companies would eventually find a way to support music based on pay-per-song systems or by ads. Both of those now exist. Obviously, there is iTunes as well as several other companies. Now, though, we have things like Pandora Radio that let people listen to free music catered to their tastes.

I think the greatest program so far is Spotify, which offers ad-based music, but lets you listen to almost any song available for an unlimited amount of time. Like everything else, you can subscribe and get rid of ads. Now that everyone's getting smartphones, it's making torrent sites obsolete for music, because you can get legal access to it anywhere now.

By Emilski — On Sep 10, 2012

@titans62 - I believe the way most sites get around it is because they are not based in the US like Napster was. It is very hard for the FBI or some other agency to prosecute people from another country. Conveniently enough, these sites are usually based in places that tend to protect their citizens, like Sweden.

You're slightly off on how the sites work though. The way they protect themselves is because they don't actually host files. Nowhere on their servers are illegal files saved. Their legal defense when they are sued is that they only facilitate the transfer of files between users. They never encourage or condone illegal file sharing.

It usually seems like the sites that do stay open are constantly under legal pressure, so that's where most of their money goes.

By titans62 — On Sep 09, 2012

The article talks about Fanning losing his case with Napster. That always makes me wonder how the other sites get away with hosting illegal files. There are literally hundreds of sites, and none of them get shut down.

I think the craziest thing is that the people running those sites are making money off of the ads. Not only are they ripping off the music and movie industries, they are getting paid to do it.

By jmc88 — On Sep 08, 2012

@Viktor13 - Like others have said, the only surefire way to avoid viruses and malware is not to download files in the first place. If you absolutely think you need a file, though, there are ways to tell if it might be packaged with a virus. Regardless of whether the file is legal or not, these are always good guidelines to follow.

First, check the number of seeders for the file. If there is a very high number then it's reasonable to believe that the file is real. 1000s of people won't keep hosting a file with a virus on it.

You can also look at the comments for the file. Nearly every site has a comments section. If the file shows 1000s of seeders and only a couple of comments, I would consider it suspicious. I generally look for files to have about 1 comment for every 10 seeders. Sometimes the comments will even come out and say if there is a virus with the file.

By anon281405 — On Jul 23, 2012

You really have to take care when your downloading torrents that contain copyrighted content. They will really get you these days.

By horsebite — On May 20, 2011

@Viktor 13 - The best way to avoid getting virus is not to download from sites that host copyrighted materials or software that has been hacked or altered. If you search more carefully and educate yourself, you can find torrents of material that is legal to distribute. You always have to be careful when downloading anything from the Internet, but the greatest danger is probably in trying to get something for nothing by downloading pirated games, music, or movies.

By Viktor13 — On May 17, 2011

What is the best way to avoid getting a virus from music torrent sites?

By BigManCar — On May 17, 2011

Nice overview -- I agree, there is a lot of illegal material out there on torrent sites, but I think that it's important to stress how they can be a good way to get legal products distributed as well.

Just think about the dozens of PC game torrents set up to distribute games digitally. These torrents can save the distributors, who are often small, independent studios, a great deal of money and bandwidth because the content is largely hosted on the computers of those "seeding" the torrents. This is a win-win for studios and fans, since new content can be shared more quickly and for less money.

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