Torrenting is one of the most popular methods of procuring movies, music, books, games, etc. from the internet. Every day, millions of gigabytes of data are downloaded through torrent engines such as uTorrent. Although the number has reduced with the rise in popularity of streaming websites like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar, and music apps like Gaana, Spotify, and YouTube Music, these streaming sites have only marginally reduced the overall amount of torrenting.
What is torrenting and how does it work?
Torrenting is a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing technology where multiple users can connect and share files over a network. When torrenting a file, a peer not only downloads from the source but also from other peers of the torrent, hence facilitating a smoother and faster file transfer.
The more seeders (peers who are downloading the file and uploading it to be used by others) for a torrent, the faster the file will download. The download speed reduces with increase in leechers (peers who download a file but restrict upload from their server to be used by others).
One reason for the popularity of torrenting is that it’s free! Aside from the security risk to your computer, torrenting is a hassle-free process. Of course, this leads to a significant loss of revenue for the content creators like authors, artists, producers, etc. Hence, the entertainment industry is pushing for quicker releases to streaming sites and books are migrating to ebooks and audiobooks; they want to make their content widely available so that users don’t feel compelled to torrent.
Is it safe to use?
Torrent engines such as uTorrent are safe applications made by trusted entities. The problem is the file that you download using these engines. A file could contain malicious content and infect your computer once downloaded. Also, as a P2P system, your IP address is tracked and available to other peers. Also, your ISP may monitor the files that you torrent! Using a VPN is an easy way around this issue. However, that will not prevent you from unintentionally downloading a malicious file.
Is it illegal?
Torrenting is only a system of file sharing between peers and is not illegal in itself. The legality of torrenting depends on the file being downloaded. If the file is not copyrighted, then using torrents to download the file is legal. However, if the file is copyrighted, then downloading it is illegal as per copyright infringement laws. Most countries have laws that protect against intellectual property theft. Any content that is protected under copyright cannot be downloaded off the internet, unless made free by the copyright-holder.
Where does the buck stop?
For that, let’s first identify the actors in this system.
- Hosts – the organisations behind the torrent websites that hold the torrent files.
- Peers – users who upload and download files on these websites.
- Engine Developers – those who create apps like uTorrent to download the files.
Given that torrenting or P2P file exchange is not illegal, the Hosts claim to be without blame in the whole process. Their defence is that they only create a platform for users to upload and download files from. The opposing argument can be that the Hosts bear the responsibility of ensuring that the files uploaded are copyright-free. The Developers who create the torrent engines claim they are completely in the clear as their applications are only used as a medium to download torrent files. Since torrenting is legal, they are clear of blame.
Then come the peers. The Peers that download torrent files claim that they are unaware of which files are copyright free and which are copyrighted. While this is a loose argument, it creates enough grey area to protect them from being convicted of copyright infringement. And finally, the Peers have upload files to these websites. Here again the lines are blurry because each peers is technically a source for the torrent file in question. So, should the blame rest only with the original uploader or also with all the peers? And remember, if it’s a copyrighted file, then even the leeches are to blame.
This is one of the reasons that the conviction rate is very low in cases of illegal torrenting. It’s often unclear whom all the copyright-holders should go after. Often, they only sue the hosts. And from the last decade or so it’s quite clear how easily these hosts are able to avoid the law. One of the oldest websites till date, The Pirate Bay, is caught up in litigation in multiple countries, yet continues to thrive through proxies and regularly changing their domain name.
And finally, there is the matter of jurisdiction. Laws are geographically bound while the world the internet recognises no boundaries, making it near impossible to curb illegal torrenting. Another issue is the degree of severity. The cyber cells in India at least, are short staffed and over-worked. So often they prefer to focus on issues like financial fraud, identity theft, cyberterrorism etc.
Now, this is not all there is to torrenting. There are other aspects like the cost of intellectual property theft and copyright ownership, and even technological aspects like VPNs and the Tor Network. However, for now, it’s important to take note that file sharing or torrenting is legal as long as the files are copyright-free.
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