If you were to Google the term “torrent”, you would likely find an amalgam of sketchy websites. Perhaps some Wikipedia entries about the technology and various clients that support it, and grave legal warnings about their potential for copyright infringement. Oddly, this is one of the few things one can Google and not get a clear, concise answer on what exactly torrenting is and how it came about.
Here's a brief history of file-sharing that led to the widespread usage of torrents, how the P2P protocol works at a high level, the rise and downfall of copyright infringement enforcement, and whether torrenting is indeed legal or not.
Online File-Sharing: A Brief History
Though the Internet began as an exclusive space for academics to share research material, it gradually evolved into what it is now. In the early days of the Internet, connection speeds were so slow that online file-sharing wouldn't have been feasible.
However, as we entered the 1990s, DSL became widely available to consumers. It isn't nearly as fast as cable or fiber, but it was the first time the average Internet user had access to “high-speed Internet”. This was the advent of file-sharing, but it didn't involve torrents.
In those days, most people simply signed up for an email account from their ISP and had access to a free Usenet account. Usenet was used to share news articles quickly before websites were advanced. With clients known as “news readers”, most Internet users could take advantage of a “news search” through an index run by their ISPs.
Usenet had one major design flaw (or advantage, depending on one's perspective). Users could attach files to news articles. At first, these attachments included content related to news articles posted to these services. Pretty soon, people began uploading MP3 songs and other smaller files to Usenet.
Because nobody had predicted that this technology would be used for wide-ranging copyright infringement, ISPs weren't logging most Usenet transactions. But, as it became more and more centered around piracy, ISPs moved away from the technology.
By the mid-2000s, Internet users were used to getting “free content” through illegitimate sources. Naturally, two technologies came to mind.
In modern times, Usenet is available, though typically not through an ISP. Most people must purchase a separate subscription. It's also more challenging to find copyrighted titles on Usenet servers, since creators still regularly trawl Usenet for their content and request that it be taken down.
File Hosts and P2P
“File hosts” were initially used to share files. These operated in a similar fashion to Usenet, but they were accessible via HTTP. Of course, file hosts still exist, but you must pay a hefty premium for access.
The only free way left to share files was the P2P protocol. BitTorrent, invented by a college student in 2001, allowed users to share files in a decentralized manner. For the first time, copyright holders couldn't simply send a takedown request to have their items removed. Since content is “seeded” by other peers and not a server, copyright holders' best hope is to take down websites that contain magnet links and torrents.
How Torrenting Works
First, a user must create a torrent. This is done through a BitTorrent client and creates a metadata file with information on the files of the torrent. With data allocated into “chunks”, hashes are also provided for each piece. This is to prevent malicious users from “poisoning” torrents with malware.
Once a .torrent file is made, the user must upload it to a torrenting site. It will initially only have one seed: the user who uploaded it. As others download it, they will also become seeds.
Like all technologies, the P2P protocol has its downsides. Its largest downfall is that the IP addresses of users uploading and downloading a torrent at any time are viewable to anyone, provided it is a public torrent. That vulnerability is exploited by many content creation companies.
Public Torrents vs. Private Torrents
There's a clear distinction between public and private torrents. Public torrents are available to anyone around the world, and these are how 99% of “busts” occur. This is low-hanging fruit for rights holders, and using your actual IP to transfer copyrighted material via a public torrent is a recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, private torrents are only available to a selected audience. You'll likely have to hunt for invitations to private torrent communities online. With these, you need to maintain a satisfactory “ratio” of uploaded to downloaded content. If you're deemed a “leech”, you'll likely be removed from the community. Private torrents don't guarantee safety, but they're a step in the right direction.
Is Torrenting Legal?
One of the most frequently asked questions about this subject is whether it's legal to download torrents. Unfortunately, most people associate torrenting with sharing copyrighted property without its creators' permission. Though this does occur, P2P has many other legal uses.
While the legality of torrenting varies by country, P2P downloads are legal and used everywhere.
Many are surprised to learn that tech businesses utilize Peer to Peer technology in their operations. For example, Microsoft began to distribute Windows 10 updates using BitTorrent for users who didn't opt out. This eased the load on Microsoft by lowering server costs, allowing them to invest more in future OS updates.
Some companies feared utilizing this technology due to their negative association with piracy. Nevertheless, Microsoft's decision led to decreased maintenance times and downtime for other companies who use their technology. For instance, the International Space Station, many financial companies, and even common social media platforms benefit from the utilization of BitTorrent by Microsoft.
Of course, the more traditional use for BitTorrent is to upload and download media. The legality of using P2P technologies for this is solely dependent on whether the creators intended for it to be distributed this way.
For example, a newly released movie from a famous studio is likely not legal to share via BitTorrent. On the other hand, many new artists and studios have found that P2P communities are great for getting initial exposure and share their first works for free.
It's almost impossible to find legal torrents by an artist you currently know by name. Yet, many emerging artists that you will most likely recognize are using P2P to share their works. Some famous artists still use BitTorrent to share albums. Here are some examples.
In what was considered a bizarre move, the lead Radiohead singer, Thom Yorke, began putting albums on P2P networks, free of charge. Though they've updated their business model to allow people to pay, but not require them to send money to receive their latest albums, they've had great success.
While many groups representing artists pursue those who use BitTorrent to get their music, Radiohead did the exact opposite. They allowed their albums to be on traditional “pirate” platforms. But they also offered their own torrent on their site, requiring users to sign up and choose a price. This way, the band could gather more data on their fans and know what to put in their next albums.
Nine Inch Nails
This band had seen lackluster sales and went to P2P platforms as a last resort. Like Radiohead, they allowed potential fans to torrent their music and “choose” a fee for their albums. At first, it appeared that people were just downloading their albums for free.
The decision to make their work available for free ultimately paid off for the group. According to The New York Times, “Nine Inch Nails” ended up making $1,600,000 from fan donations, merchandise profits, and more. And it all started with their file-sharing experiment.
Your Next Favorite Artist
Many BitTorrent clients have advertisements in them that may be bypassed for a fee. Many have turned to advertising new artists' music. While the “free music” strategy won't work for all artists, this is how more and more people are learning about up and coming artists before they become famous.
The Illegal Sharing of Copyrighted Materials
Though some countries have specific exceptions, downloading copyrighted content using a P2P network isn't legal. The MPAA and the RIAA are the two groups who 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. Though they've been slower than the RIAA on backing down on individual users, their string of lawsuits against “casual pirates” has gone to almost zero. The MPAA historically has gone after those who upload and download files containing their copyrighted content. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are expensive for the average person.
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 a bit too many headlines, the group has relaxed its stance.
Nonetheless, they continue to monitor torrent swarms, usually on public trackers, and record IP addresses found to be engaging in piracy.
Joint MPAA/RIAA Efforts
The two groups have joined forces 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.
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.
Will 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. Remember, there is nothing inherently illegal about the P2P protocol. It's often used to legally promote new artists and host timeless classics currently in the public domain, meaning it's legal for anyone to upload and download these works.
The issue arises when you download content that costs money. If it 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, it's critical to use a VPN service when you torrent. It will help ensure that you're shielded from lawsuits if you accidentally download a copyrighted item. And never assume that torrent clients will provide anonymity.
A Warning on “Throttling”
As rights holders have shifted away from prosecuting individuals torrenting copyrighted material, they've been cooperating with ISPs to identify torrents. Most of the time, if you are “caught” downloading something copyrighted, your ISP will email you to notify you of the violation.
Though it's unlikely that they will cancel your Internet connection, many ISPs will “throttle” traffic detected as P2P traffic. That means that it's deprioritized and often operates at a fraction of the Internet speed you pay for. Using a VPN will also make it so that your ISP can't tell you're torrenting and is less likely to end up with a significant slowdown to your Internet.
We've gone over a lot in this article. In short, P2P's history isn't long, but it's complex. It's clear that companies are waking up to its benefits and are now trying to leverage BitTorrent technology to their advantage.
It's important to divorce the concept of the P2P protocol with copyright infringement. There are legal and illegal torrents; whether these rules are actually enforced depends on your legal jurisdiction. Many initial attempts at stopping piracy actually ended up increasing the volume of content shared via torrents. Though the practice is mostly illegal, it's here to stay.
Security issues persist with the technology because it wasn't initially created with the intent of masking users' identities. However, with a few precautionary measures and some common sense, most will be fine taking advantage of the technology after due diligence.
Finally, it's important to mention that you shouldn't see this article as condoning piracy or saying that there is a 100% chance you'll get away with it. While some countries allow small-scale piracy, others still enforce copyright laws vigorously. You should do your own legal research before you embark on any file-sharing endeavor.