Looking to find out more about torrenting? We explain exactly what torrenting is, how to torrent safely, and what to do if you get caught.
Three questions I’m often asked are: Is torrenting safe, is torrenting legal, and what happens if I get caught? This post answers those questions and looks at the methods torrenters use to stay safe and anonymous.
What is Torrenting?
Torrenting is the act of downloading and uploading files through the BitTorrent network. Instead of downloading files to a central server, torrenting involves downloading files from other users’ devices on the network. Conversely, users upload files from their own devices for other users to download.
Torrenting is the most popular form of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing, and it requires torrent management software to connect to the BitTorrent network. Such software can be downloaded for free for a number of different devices.
Everyone downloading or uploading the same file is called a peer, and collectively they are known as a swarm. Because of how BitTorrent works, a peer can download a file from several other users at once, or upload a file to multiple other users simultaneously.
Torrenting is often associated with piracy because it’s frequently used to share files that are protected by copyright, including movies, games, music, and software. However, torrenting has many legitimate uses as well, such as lessening the load on centralized servers by distributing the hosting burden among users.
Torrenting safety and legality: In short
Is torrenting legal or illegal? Torrenting itself isn’t illegal, but downloading unsanctioned copyrighted material is. It’s not always immediately apparent which content is legal to torrent and which isn’t. Some fall in a gray area, so you may find yourself unwittingly on the wrong side of the law.
Your internet service provider (ISP) and copyright trolls monitoring the BitTorrent network can take action if they catch you illegally torrenting. This can range from a warning letter and throttling (slowing down) of your internet connection speeds to legal action – although the latter is increasingly rare.
Digital privacy-conscious torrenters will use VPN services, or virtual private networks, to keep their internet activity hidden from their ISP. With a wide range of applications, some VPNs are better suited for torrenting than others. If you want to keep your ISP from snooping on your activity, choose a VPN connection that: a) doesn’t keep a log of your activity, b) isn’t based in a country where the legal system can be used to demand customer records, and c) is fast enough that it won’t slow entire downloads. We’ve rounded up the providers that fit these criteria and others in our list of the best torrenting VPN services.
How to torrent safely
It is relatively simple to torrent safely and keep your online activity private. Note that while a VPN for torrenting will keep your activity private and safe from prying eyes you may still be susceptible to malware from some public torrent sites. Follow these 5 steps to torrent privately with a VPN.
Here’s how to torrent safely:
- Download and install a VPN matching the criteria mentioned above. We recommend NordVPN.
- Enable your VPN’s kill switch, if it has one.
- Connect to a VPN server, preferably in a P2P-friendly country
- Once the connection is established, open your torrent client and start downloading as usual
- Your online activity is now encrypted by your VPN
Torrenting without a VPN
Torrenting without a VPN means your internet service provider (ISP) can see your online activity including the sites you visit and the content you view. In certain countries, including the US, ISPs are allowed to share this information with third parties including intellectual property owners. A VPN will keep your online activity private from your ISP.
Is uTorrent safe?
uTorrent is the official torrent client from the creators of the BitTorrent protocol. It is proprietary—not open source—software maintained by a legal US company. Like BitTorrent, the uTorrent software itself is legal, although it can be used for digital piracy. The official uTorrent is free of malware and can be used safely and privately in combination with a VPN. It does not, however, prevent users from downloading malicious files that can infect their devices.
The BitTorrent protocol rose to become the most popular medium for peer-to-peer file sharing in the world after the demise of centralized services like Napster and Limewire. Unlike those services, torrenting is almost completely decentralized save for the trackers that allow users to search and download torrent files and magnet links. Torrent files and magnet links are used to find other users on the network who host the desired file or files but do not actually host those files for downloading.
Is BitTorrent safe and legal?
The BitTorrent protocol is not in itself illegal or unsafe. It is just the means to share any type of file, and plenty of legal torrenting services do exist. The most popular torrent trackers, such as ThePirateBay and KickassTorrents, however, operate in a legal grey area, offering users free access to copyrighted content. Sharing and downloading copyrighted content by BitTorrent, or other means is illegal in many countries and can be unsafe since sites including KickassTorrents have been shown to host malware.
These trackers would argue that they simply find and organize information that is already out there, and they do not illegally host any copyrighted content on their own servers. Just like the BitTorrent protocol itself, they are the means to an end. Not everyone is convinced. Major trackers have come under heavy legal scrutiny from content creators and distributors who argue that trackers enable and encourage theft.
The blame ultimately shifts to the users, the millions of individuals who host files on their personal computers, downloading and uploading movies, games, software, music, ebooks, and more. Users connected to the same tracker are called peers, and they fall into two categories. A leech uses a torrent file or magnet link to download the file from other users on the network who already have the file. These users who already have the file are called seeds. When a leech is finished downloading a file (or even just part of a file), he or she becomes a seed, allowing other leeches to download the file from his or her computer. As a general rule, it’s considered proper pirate etiquette to seed as much as you leech.
Comparitech does not condone or encourage any violation of copyright law or restrictions. Please consider the law, victims, and risks of copyright piracy before downloading copyrighted material without permission.
Legally speaking, seeding and leeching copyrighted material fall into different criminal categories. Think of it like buying illegal drugs: purchasing the drugs for personal use is definitely a crime, but a relatively minor one. Turning around and selling those drugs to others is a much more serious offense. Finding the original source of the drugs, or in this case, the HD rip of the new Avengers movie, would be the best-case scenario for law enforcement, but that isn’t always possible. The trackers act as the shady back alley marketplaces where all of these transactions go down, but they don’t personally handle any of the drugs.
What happens if you are caught torrenting?
The prosecution of torrent users has been sporadic. The chances of actually going to court or having to pay a settlement are pretty slim, but the penalties can be extremely high. The frequency of copyright holders suing torrenters for copyright infringement peaked in the late 2000s. Copyright pirates were sued for wildly disproportionate amounts of money, and most settled out of court.
These public scare tactics shone poorly on the recording and movie industries because they were portrayed as petty millionaires bullying poor college students. Direct lawsuits are much less common these days, but the campaign against torrenters is far from over.
Now the job of going after individual copyright pirates has been outsourced to a growing number of small businesses known as copyright trolls. These companies locate torrenters who illegally download copyrighted content through their real IP addresses. They then approach the copyright owners and sign a deal that lets them take legal action on their behalf. Others are hired directly by Hollywood production companies to sniff out pirates.
With legal leverage and a list of names, the copyright trolls then go after torrenters via mail, email, or even by going door to door and handing out settlement letters. These letters are not legally binding documents or injunctions. Copyright trolls use intimidation, fear, and shame to make torrenters pay without ever going to court. A common tactic is to threaten to sue for over $100,000 but only ask for $3,000 or so in the settlement. That makes the $3,000 look like a good deal, but going to court is costly and risky for them, so don’t give in if you receive such a letter.
What to do if you receive a settlement letter
The most common way to receive a settlement letter is through your internet provider. A copyright troll will go through the court system to subpoena your ISP and force it to email customers with a legal threat and hand over personal details.
According to US law, an IP address is not a person. If you were contacted through your ISP, chances are that’s because the copyright troll doesn’t know your actual identity yet. If the letter doesn’t contain any identifying information on you, keep it that way and do nothing. Your case could be dismissed before the date that your ISP is set to reveal your personal details to the troll. If you respond and identify yourself, that gives the troll a more direct means of targeting you.
This is a game of probability for copyright trolls. If they send out 1,000 threatening emails and 50 people reply, they only need a handful to actually cough up money to make it worth their time. Chances are it’s more cost-effective for them to move on to the next swarm of torrenters than pursue the remaining 950 people.
If things escalate and you decide to take action, lawyer up. Here’s a list of attorneys compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that specialize in these sorts of cases.
Depending on your ISP, it may take actions against you on its own behalf. That could mean throttling your internet connection or threatening to hand over personal details to a copyright troll. Why does your ISP even care? Because torrenting takes up a lot of bandwidth, and that bandwidth costs ISPs money. On top of that, an ISP could be receiving kickbacks from content owners and their associates.
How to protect yourself
To avoid any legal ramifications, it’s best to simply not torrent. However, if you insist on torrenting, take the time to protect your online privacy and keep copyright trolls at bay.
Use a VPN when torrenting
The best way to torrent safely is by using a VPN. A VPN accomplishes two things: first, it re-routes all your internet traffic through a server in a location of your choosing, which changes your real IP address to one used by hundreds or thousands of other people (assuming your VPN uses shared IP addresses, which most do). This adds a significant layer of anonymity and makes it much more difficult for anyone to track you. Second, a VPN encrypts all your torrent traffic before it leaves your computer. That means your ISP cannot monitor your internet activity, nor can anyone else. And because all your traffic heads to the VPN server first, ISPs can’t even tell where it’s going.
Using a quality VPN is key; don’t settle for a “free” service or VPNs that log your activity, cap your bandwidth and data, or don’t provide sufficient DNS leak protection. Not all VPNs tolerate torrenting. You can check out our list of the best VPNs for torrenting here, which are services with fast download speeds and a focus on online privacy, security and anonymity like NordVPN, Surfshark, and ExpressVPN among others.
If you don’t want to pay for a VPN, you might be considering Tor. Tor is similar to a VPN in that it routes your traffic through several volunteer “nodes” while encrypting traffic. We recommend a VPN over Tor for a couple reasons. First, Tor is slow, and usually best for simple browsing and other low-bandwidth activity. Second, connecting to Tor could actually draw more attention from your ISP and law enforcement, as it’s a well-known tool for hackers and criminals.
Another popular app among torrenters is Peerblock. Peerblock is a desktop firewall with a regularly updated blacklist of IP addresses. These IP addresses belong to entities that try to track your activity online, especially on peer-to-peer networks. Unfortunately, the blacklist is only updated once upon installation. After that, users must pay to keep them updated. Even if you’re willing to pay, it’s unlikely that the blacklist could contain every possible IP address for copyright trolls, universities, and law enforcement. A copyright troll just needs to connect to the swarm–all the devices connected to a single torrent–with an IP that isn’t on that blacklist to get your IP address.
Instead of torrenting, another alternative is Usenet. Usenet is a paid service-usually between $10 and $20 per month–where you download files from centralized servers instead of a network of peers. Usenet downloads are much, much faster; often as fast as your ISP can handle. Usenet is more private as well. The connections take place between you and the provider’s network of servers, and the best providers offer an SSL-encrypted connection. Some even throw in VPNs for good measure. Torrents, on the other hand, require that you share at least some identifying information to connect to the tracker and peers.
Finally, downloading a Usenet file doesn’t mean you have to seed it for other internet users afterward. Legally, this makes you less of a target because you’re not supplying strangers with copyrighted content, at the same time consuming fewer computer resources and internet bandwidth.
Usenet providers make files available for a certain number of days. How many depends on the provider, but the standard is 1,200 days after the original posting. Until that time is up, users have full access to that file. Torrents only stay up as long as people seed the file.
Public vs private trackers
A “tracker” is like a search engine that indexes files on the BitTorrent network. Trackers can be private or public, and the former usually requires an invitation from an existing member.
ThePirateBay, KickassTorrents, and Demonoid are all examples of public trackers. Anyone can just go to their respective websites and search without logging in or requiring any sort of authentication. Likewise, anyone can upload files for others to download. These uploads are not moderated, so users must judge whether a download is safe and accurate based on comments and the reputation of the uploader.
Private trackers are more exclusive both in terms of who can upload and who can download within a group. They vary wildly in terms of content and quality, but many members of private trackers attest that they have higher quality files, faster downloads, longer retention, and an overall more consistent and safe experience.
The law views private trackers the same as public trackers. Internet piracy is piracy whether you do it in public or within a private group.
Streaming vs torrenting
Many people have moved away from downloading entire files through BitTorrent and opt instead to stream video content either on their web browsers or through customized programs like Kodi. When it comes to safety and the law, what’s the difference?
Legally speaking, you’re probably still breaking the law when you stream illegal content from a pirated source. However, this depends largely on your country. In the UK, it’s outright illegal. In India, a court ruled that it is absolutely not illegal. In the US, it’s still a grey area, as there’s been no precedent of anyone being convicted for copyright piracy after streaming copyrighted video content from an unsanctioned source.
Those who upload the videos without compensating or asking permission from the copyright holder do so illegally. That’s pretty much standard no matter where you are.
Not only do laws tend to be more lenient toward streaming content, but it’s also more difficult for copyright trolls and law enforcement to catch users in the act. When you download a torrent, you can see the IP addresses of everyone else you’re uploading to or downloading from. But streaming transmits a video directly from a website to your device, with no third parties involved.
Don’t get too comfortable, however, as there are still risks. The website could be logging IP addresses or other information about its users, which it could then hand over to law enforcement or a copyright troll. Your ISP could monitor your activity and see that you are watching pirated content. These are risks that can be mitigated by connecting to a reputable VPN.
When it comes to security, streaming video carries just as many risks as torrenting. Websites that stream pirated content tend to be chock full of intrusive ads, malware, and phishing threats. Kodi users are subject to man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks and other threats from the add-ons they download.
As a rule of thumb, avoid downloading movies that were released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the past 60 days, especially big-hit blockbusters. That’s when movies make the vast majority of their post-box office money, after which their income significantly drops off. Copyright holders will put most of their anti-piracy resources into going after torrenters of new releases to minimize the financial damage. The same goes for TV series, shows and video games.
Users of Popcorn Time, the free movie-streaming app, should tread just as carefully as torrenters. Many Popcorn Time users don’t realize that the app actually streams directly from torrents and will even seed a file so it is uploaded to other users. All the risks associated with Popcorn Time apply in equal measure to torrenting.
Choose your torrents wisely. The most popular torrents on ThePirateBay and KickassTorrents are probably the ones being most closely monitored by copyright trolls. However, don’t pick totally unpopular ones either. Read through the comments section, where users often run virus scans on torrent downloads and post the results. They will also give you a general review of the quality.
Even if the comments are positive, run your own virus scans as well. Ideally, use multiple antivirus programs to run an array of scans, as each of their virus libraries can differ. Not all antivirus programs play nice with each other, however, so mixing two or more must be done with care. We recommend Bitdefender to scan all downloads before opening. This is especially important when downloading games and software, which are often “cracked” by the uploader. Cracks make it easier to bypass DRM schemes that validate content with the publisher, but they also make it easier to distribute hidden malware, spyware, and viruses. Check out Comparitech’s antivirus reviews section here.
Why did BitTorrent install adware on my computer?
BitTorrent is a network and protocol used to share files, so BitTorrent itself cannot install adware on your computer.
However, the programs used to connect to the BitTorrent network and download files, called torrent managers or torrent clients, can and often do come with adware. The files you download can also contain malware and adware.
Stick to reputable torrent managers and, if prompted, refuse any offers to install additional software alongside them. These additional programs are often adware.
Likewise, be sure to only download and upload torrents you trust.
Is downloading a shared torrent from Google drive illegal?
If you’re downloading something from Google Drive, then it’s not a torrent. It’s just a download. The file might have originally been downloaded through BitTorrent, then uploaded to Google Drive where others can download it.
Semantics aside, if the content of the file is protected by copyright, then yes, it is illegal to download pirated files from Google Drive.
Can I just download a torrent from a public place?
Most torrenters use public trackers to find and download files through BitTorrent. So in that sense, yes, you can download a torrent from a public place provided you have a torrent client installed on your device.
The files themselves are downloaded from other BitTorrent users who have downloaded the file and are now uploading it to fellow users.
Private trackers are also available and are often safer, but typically require an invitation from an existing member.
Can I go to jail for torrenting?
It depends on the circumstances, but no, it’s highly doubtful you would go to jail for torrenting. Most lawsuits regarding torrenting are civil suits, not criminal ones, so if a penalty is levied, it’s usually a fine or some other monetary compensation.
That being said, it also depends on what country you’re in, what you torrent, and whether you also seeded the file so it could be downloaded by other users. Check your local laws and regulations.
What are the risks of torrenting music?
The music recording industry has, on occasion, aggressively targeted torrenters who engaged in music piracy. These days, litigation is mostly done by copyright trolls who target torrenters on behalf of recording studios. They’ll send out settlement letters demanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars to torrenters whom they can identify. They usually go through internet service providers to contact torrenters. Your ISP could throw you under the bus, and that’s not a gamble we recommend taking. By using a VPN, you can greatly reduce the risk of being identified by a copyright troll.
What legal use cases can I use torrents for?
There are plenty of free ways to use BitTorrent. Here are a few examples:
- Open-source software, such as Linux distros, is often available for download via BitTorrent. This saves the organization maintaining the distro from having to host the files themselves.
- Public domain media, like old movies, books, and music for which the copyrights have expired, can be found and legally downloaded through BitTorrent
- Independent artists making movies, games, books, and music often post their content for free on BitTorrent.
- BitTorrent is a convenient way to access fair use materials from various media
Where do people get torrents from?
Torrents are usually found on BitTorrent trackers, which are essentially searchable websites that index torrents uploaded by users. Users can download the small torrent file, which your torrent client uses to find other users uploading and downloading the same content.
Trackers can be public or private. Some torrents are linked directly.
What are Seeders and Leechers?
A seed is a user who uploads files to the BitTorrent network for other users to download.
A leech is a user who downloads files from the BitTorrent network from other users.
A typical user starts as a leech by downloading a file. Once the file is finished downloading (or even before), the user transitions to being a seed and starts uploading the file to other users.
A common courtesy among torrenters is to seed as much data as you leech. So if you download a 1 GB file, you should seed that file until you’ve uploaded at least an equivalent amount of data. However, this guideline is in no way enforced.