The act of torrenting or sharing digital files is legal. We can say the same about the underlying technologies such as BitTorrent. The legal issues associated with torrenting start when these files include copyrighted content. Then, it’s not the act of torrenting itself that is illegal, but rather the distribution of the copyrighted material.
Ever since P2P protocols were released, there has been discussion about how they can be conducive to online piracy. We will look back at the first scandals and entities fighting against piracy and discuss the current legal situation.
When Did Torrents First Clash with the Law?
The first considerable controversy about sharing copyrighted content was the Napster scandal. If you don’t know, Napster was brought down in a California federal court with a lawsuit filed by legendary rock band Metallica in 2000.
This marked the beginning of many legal fights between file-sharing entities, governments, and copyright groups.
Who is Targeting Torrent Users?
The MPAA and the RIAA are the two groups that have fought the hardest against those who downloaded copyrighted material.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
In addition to setting ratings in the United States for certain movies, the MPAA is essentially a movie creators’ union representing the common interests of those in the industry.
One of those interests happens to be retaining studios’ intellectual property rights. The MPAA has gone after those who upload and download files containing their copyrighted content. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are expensive for the average person.
They’ve been slower than the RIAA on backing down on individual users. But their lawsuits against “casual pirates” has decreased considerably.
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
This group represents musicians and music studios. They’re notorious for filing countless lawsuits against people for pirating even single songs without permission. After making too many headlines, the group has relaxed its stance.
Nonetheless, they continue to monitor torrent swarms and record IP addresses found to be engaging in piracy.
Joint MPAA/RIAA Efforts
These two groups have teamed up to take down websites dedicated to piracy. Now, they’re not going after individual BitTorrent users nearly as much as they used to. But they’re heavily attacking file lockers and sites known to link to copyrighted media.
Megaupload is one of the most famous examples. Though the site didn’t upload music itself, it hosted many pirated MP3 files. This situation led to a huge court battle. And while a Virginia-based federal judge blocked MPAA/RIAA’s attempt to get users’ information, they did manage to get the site closed.
Can I Get Sued for Torrenting?
With so many news stories of “busts” over the decades, you might be wondering if you’ll be targeted personally for torrenting copyrighted content in the present day.
Though pirating is usually a “civil offense” in the United States, it’s a criminal offense in most countries. Many countries have agencies dedicated to tracking down “pirates” and fining them a fixed amount per instance. But that varies widely across the globe, with countries like Germany mass-fining P2P pirates and Canada largely taking a hands-off approach.
If torrenting is unlawful in your country, there is always a chance that you will be “found out” and fined or even arrested for being part of the torrent scene. While illegal activity is never advisable, using a VPN service when you torrent is critical. It will help ensure you’re shielded from lawsuits if you accidentally download a copyrighted item.
Even though it’s illegal to download copyrighted content, it’s important to divorce the concept of torrenting from infringement. There are different uses for file-sharing, and we shouldn’t immediately think of an “illegal practice” when we hear the word “torrent”.
Finally, it’s important to mention that you shouldn’t see this article as condoning piracy or saying that there is a chance you’ll get away with it. While some countries allow small-scale piracy, others still enforce copyright laws vigorously. Before you embark on any file-sharing endeavor, you should research your country’s laws.