“Is torrenting illegal?” is one of the most common questions we’re asked – and one of the most common questions asked online in general.
So as part of our new series of torrent guides, we thought it best to write an article focused solely on providing the best answer possible.
Why an entire article?
Well, the legality of torrenting is very much a gray area. It’s not as easy as simply saying “yes,” “no,” or “sometimes.”
The Short Answer
First things first: torrenting itself isn’t considered an illegal activity.
Because torrenting is actually a file-sharing technology, there are several legal applications.
For example, you might need to share an important document with your work team and/or clients, but the file size (and volume of recipients) is too big for cloud services like Dropbox.
All that really sets torrenting apart from such platforms is the fact you’re using a peer-to-peer (P2P) network rather than a single server.
However, there are also plenty of illegal uses for torrenting.
The obvious example (and most common use of P2P file-sharing) is downloading movies and series, which falls under copyright infringement.
This is where things get complicated. Even though there are clearly legal and clearly illegal torrenting activities, there are also some that fall into a gray zone.
And this means you could unwittingly end up engaging in illegal activity while trying to perform entirely legal tasks via torrenting.
If you’re going to make use of torrenting protocol, then the BitTorrent network protocol is your safest option.
You’ll also want to use their client.
Using BitTorrent is 100% legal, but that doesn’t make the activities you engage in through them equally legal.
The easiest way to explain how you’ll be using them is to say they’ll help you connect to torrenting sites.
These act the same way as the Google search engine indexer and use trackers to connect peers to each other and the file downloads available on the P2P network.
(Take a look at our guide on What is Torrent? for a more complete explanation.)
With that groundwork out of the way, let’s take a more detailed look at the illegal side of torrenting.
The Dark Side of Torrenting
Public torrenting sites are indiscriminate when it comes to access and the type of downloads you’ll find indexed.
They typically pull a form of the scapegoating logical fallacy in defense by arguing they merely act as a host, not an active aggregator, for illegal torrent files, and that it’s the users who are to blame.
It’s an unconvincing argument that rarely works. For example, the owners of Pirate Bay were jailed for facilitating users’ breach of copyright laws.
As an oversimplification, you could say they were found guilty by association – essentially, they failed to properly protect copyright holders by censoring the type of files they were indexing.
At the end of the day, though, it’s far easier for law enforcement to identify and go after the users who use torrenting sites to leech and seed download files.
Leeching and Seeding
Let’s briefly lay some more groundwork on how torrenting works.
When you download a torrent file, you’re “leeching” by extracting the file (or parts thereof) from peers on the network.
Once your download (of the whole file or a part thereof) is complete, you become a “seeder,” which means other users can copy those file seeds from your computer in turn.
As a general rule, it’s good torrenting etiquette to leech and seed in almost equal measure.
Otherwise, you’re considered a leecher – someone who doesn’t return the favor by seeding or stops seeding as soon as they’re finished downloading what they want.
Leeching and seeding illegal torrent files technically fall under separate categories of illegality.
As another somewhat gross oversimplification, prosecuting leechers is similar to charging someone with illegal drug possession.
Seeders, on the other hand, are charged similarly to individuals found guilty of illegal drug distribution in addition to mere possession.
How to Protect Yourself
We should emphasize we do not condone or endorse using torrenting for illegal purposes.
But your Internet Service Provider (ISP) makes the over-generalization of treating all torrentors the same.
If your browsing history suggests you torrent, they’ll start throttling your connection – and most likely work together with copyright trolls to charge you with copyright infringement, perhaps unfairly.
So no matter what you’re using the P2P network for, you should protect yourself with a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
We strongly suggest you take a look at our guide on The Best Torrenting VPNs to help you find a reliable provider.
Not only will the best VPN protect your online privacy in general, but it will also make it virtually impossible for you to be issued a settlement letter by masking your IP address.