is torrenting illegal

Torrent: Are Torrents Illegal?

Last updated on May 11, 2021

If you thought torrenting died a death back in the early 2000s, along with pashminas and micro miniskirts, it’s time to think again. Admittedly, torrenting was at its peak a decade ago, and, in 2006, accounted for somewhere in the region of 70% of all internet traffic.

Then Netflix came along and streaming took over from torrenting and left seeds and peers stranded in the dusty backwaters of the internet. Torrenting became passé – something only geeks and cinephiles did in the privacy of their own homes.

But torrenting is far from dead and, over the past year or so, has seen a resurgence of popularity as the proliferation of streaming sites drives people back to the free and easy world of torrenting.

What is a Torrent?

Whether discussing torrents or streams, it all sounds very wet, throw in a bit of piracy and you’d think we were all at sea and, to be fair, in many respects we are. Are downloading movies illegal? It’s hard to say as the legality regarding torrents is vague at best and complicated at worst, for the simple reason that a torrent download is broken into pieces, known as packages, making it difficult to ascertain the exact nature of the information being downloaded.

The torrent file itself is a kind of key that initiates the download process. The torrent file doesn’t actually contain anything but rather gives the torrent software the information it needs to locate seeders sharing the relevant file.

Instead of downloading a movie from a single source, torrenting breaks up the movie file, storing it as lots of smaller files in multiple locations.

How Does Torrenting Work?

Torrenting uses a file-sharing system which means that all the participants work together and, by amalgamating packets of data from each torrent user, rebuild the whole picture. With large files like games, music, and movies, the download time can be prohibitive. Torrenting solves that problem by breaking those files into bits, a little like a mother cutting up a piece of steak into bite size pieces for their little one, thereby making it more digestible.

Unlike streams, which are stored on a centralized server, torrents are decentralized, with each peer operating as a type of mini server. Working as a loose community, peers share uploads and downloads simultaneously. In addition to peers, there are seeders who have the complete file stored so help seed those files for others to access. Leechers are those who download only and don’t give anything back in the form of an upload.

Pros and Cons of Torrenting

Instead of paying through the nose of endless subscriptions to streaming sites, torrenting offers a simple way of accessing the best content for free. Furthermore, because the whole process is decentralized, you can always access a download source and, if one’s not working, you can just switch to another.

As a torrent file is made up of lots of smaller files, it means that even those with slow internet speeds can download large files like movies without it taking the best part of a year to do so. What’s more, due to the nature of a torrent file, even if your internet connection fails part way through the download process, once it’s reconnected, you’ll be able to carry on where you left off. With the traditional download process, chances are, you’ll have to start at the beginning again, washing precious data in the process.

On the downside, as you can’t see the file you’re downloading until the process is complete, it’s all too easy to download malware at the same time. The fact that many ISPs are on the look-out for torrenting traffic, you could also have your bandwidth throttled once your ISP realizes what you’re up to. What’s more is if there are no seeds, there is no content, so unless someone else shares your fascination for sporting dramas, you could end up on a fruitless search.

Streams Trickle Out as Torrents Pour

There was a time when a Netflix subscription was all you needed to stream to your heart’s content but now, with Hulu, Amazon Prime, the new Disney site, and many more besides, accessing the latest TV series has become increasingly expensive.

Just as the rise of Netflix and other streaming sites was directly responsible for the demise of online piracy, making legal access to media content easier than the illegal alternative, as the legal options become increasingly onerous in terms of both logistics and finances, torrenting sites are inevitably enjoying a resurgence.

While a Netflix subscription will get you access to the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, you’ll need an HBO subscription if you want to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones. Jack Clancy is available only on Amazon Prime, which will require another monthly outlay, while Hulu members are the only ones able to watch Future Man. At the end of the day, you could be shelling out nearly $40 per month to get the content you want.

Streaming sites also have to comply with copyright regulations which means that, even if you’ve paid for all those subscriptions, you may not be able to get the content you want because of geographical restrictions limiting its distribution.

With these financial and logistical issues plaguing streaming fans, many are turning back to torrenting as a more cost-effective way of getting hold of popular TV shows and movies. There are risks involved, however, which is why many of those using torrents invest in a VPN to boost their online security.

Is Torrenting Illegal?

Are torrents illegal? With piracy site operators facing jail time and over 4,000 piracy sites blocked worldwide, it’s little wonder many people mistakenly believe that torrenting itself is illegal. After all, one of the very first sites to use P2P file-sharing, Napster, was closed down within just a couple of years of its launch. The truth is, however, it’s not the act of torrenting itself that’s the problem, it’s rather what you torrent that can land you in hot water.

Obviously, the key here is to avoid illegal torrents but that’s easier said than done which is why torrenting fell out of favor in the first place. There is one simple way of avoiding illegal torrents and that’s by sticking to legal torrent sites and avoiding those, like The Pirate Bay, which simply contains a series of links to content but has no control over the content itself.

Similarly, using only respected torrent sites can not only ensure you avoid illegal torrents but that you also steer clear of malware and other malicious infections. One of the drawbacks of torrenting is that, in many instances, you can’t see what you’re downloading until the process is complete. Upon opening your downloaded file, you may find it’s contaminated with a malicious code intent on delivering an unpleasant virus to your device.

While these steps can ensure you stay on the right side of the law while torrenting and that you avoid many of the cyber threats inherent with torrenting, they aren’t enough to keep you completely secure. A VPN is one of the best ways of creating a secure environment in which to file share and download.

By creating an encrypted tunnel, a VPN can mask your real IP address and disguise the real nature of your online activity, meaning that your ISP can’t pick up on your torrenting and therefore can’t block it either.

Not all VPNs are reliable or as effective as others, however, which is why so many people opt for well-known, reputable companies like ExpressVPN for their cybersecurity needs. Not only does ExpressVPN offer some of the fastest speeds of any encrypted tunnel, but it also uses the latest military-grade encryption and protects user privacy by keeping no logs.

Napster: A Case Study in Over-sharing

Credited with being the first centralized peer-to-peer file-sharing system, Napster was first released on June 1999. The brainchild of Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, Napster was designed to give people a simple, user-friendly way of sharing MP3 files.

The only problem was, no one asked the musicians if they would mind having their creations shared and spread across the digital landscape. In March 2000, Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster after a request to remove their music from the site was refused. Napster was subsequently shut down and settled both lawsuits.

The story of Napster gives an idea of why P2P file-sharing, or torrenting as its more commonly known, can wander into something of a legal grey area. Part of the problem is that it can be difficult to determine the exact nature of a shared file which means you could be innocently downloading copyrighted material and breaking the law.

Torrenting and The Future

With many wanting to see torrenting banned forever, just how long this option for media content will be around remains to be seen. The UK started blocking torrent sites in 2011 and now Canada looks set to jump on the bandwagon. Movie and TV studios throughout Canada are identifying suspected pirates by their IP addresses and issuing notices to their ISPs requesting that they furnish them with the name and address of the person that IP address belongs to.

Similar techniques have been used before, although an IP address alone is no longer enough. Earlier this year, Malibu Media accused Joe Park of downloading copyrighted material. The New Jersey resident failed to respond to the allegations, but was let off the hook after the judge ruled that the “plaintiff will have to show something more than merely tying the defendant to an IP address in order to sufficiently establish copyright infringement”.

Despite global efforts at clamping down on piracy and the torrenting associated with it, there is little indication that those efforts are having any effect at all. Andy Chatterley, the CEO and co-founder of the global technology company MUSO, recently said, “There is a belief that the rise in popularity of on-demand services – such as Netflix and Spotify – have solved piracy, but that theory simply doesn’t stack up. Our data suggest that piracy is more popular than ever”.

Quite what that means for the future of torrenting is anyone’s guess but one thing’s for sure, torrenting without a VPN is far more dangerous than downloading torrents with one. As ExpressVPN can mask your original IP address so effectively, not even your ISP knows that you’re downloading a torrent. Furthermore, as ExpressVPN never knows or stores your original IP address, it’s certainly not going to be responsible for handing you over to the copyright trolls.

Just as some struggle with the answer to the question, ‘Is downloading movies illegal?’, so others concern themselves with whether a VPN is legal. Again, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might have hoped. Just as downloading a movie can fall on either side of the law depending on the copyright situation, so using a VPN can be legal or illegal depending on where you’re doing it and what you’re doing inside its encrypted tunnel.

How to Choose the Best VPN for Torrenting

Even legal torrents have hidden dangers like malware so taking steps to bolster your online security is essential. The best VPNs for torrenting  offer the following features:

  • P2P-friendly servers dedicated to torrenting traffic
  • Military-grade encryption using AES 256-bit
  • Fast and consistent connections
  • Unlimited bandwidth
  • No-logging policy

Of course, once you’ve invested in a subscription a VPN, you’ll benefit from it every time you connect to the internet – not just when you’re torrenting. For example, if you do decide to give the torrenting a break and revert to the traditional streaming option, A top VPN can give you a fake US IP address so you can access the full Netflix library regardless of where you are. Furthermore, a VPN like ExpressVPN will protect your sensitive data when performing online banking transactions or indulging in a little online retail therapy.


Is torrenting illegal? No, not usually, but sometimes. With governments and copyright trolls upping the ante when it comes to illegal content, staying on the right side of the law while torrenting is becoming increasingly vital.

While a VPN is a great way of keeping your torrenting activity to yourself, no reputable VPN is going to encourage its users to hide behind its cloak of invisibility simply so they can conduct illegal activity.

ExpressVPN can help protect you against the potential threats of bundled malware and malicious code inserted into a torrent file when it comes to making sure you stay within the law, the most effective tool is common sense.

Stay away from illegal torrents by sticking to legal torrenting sites and reputable sources. By all means, use VPNs to stop your ISP from throttling your bandwidth and to protect yourself against the nefarious characters that use P2P file-sharing to find their next cybercrime victims. Just remember, even if VPNs such as ExpressVPN can’t reveal your identity based on your IP address, if you’re downloading copyrighted content without consent, you’re still breaking the law.

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