No. It’s quite legal to download torrent files.
BUT WAIT …
Before you run off and start downloading last week’s bootlegged theatrical movie release, you really need to understand why that particular download, and others like it, probably are illegal.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
(Caveat: I’m basing this on my knowledge of the current state of Copyright law. Please, realize I’m no lawyer, and this shouldn’t be taken as legal advice. This is mostly just common sense with the high level concepts we’re talking about.)
“Torrent” files are, specifically, a small file of information used by a file-sharing technology known as “bitTorrent”. To be super pedantic about it, because the “.torrent” file itself has only some administrative information in it, there’s nothing wrong with downloading it.
But that, of course, is not what you meant.
The word “torrent” is also frequently, though incorrectly, used to refer to the actual files being shared using bitTorrent. So while you might use the “.torrent” file to initiate a download, most people call the download itself a “torrent” as well. And that’s more than likely what you’re asking.
It’s just file-transfer technology
But here’s the catch: bitTorrent is nothing more than a technology used to copy files. It’s highly efficient technology, optimized for large files and decentralized storage of downloaded files, but ultimately, it’s nothing more than a way to copy a file to your machine.
In general, copying a file to your machine is certainly not illegal.
Similarly, the technology you might use to copy a file to your machine is not illegal.
In some ways, you could just as well ask “Is it legal to download files from the web?”, to which the answer is (obviously, I hope), of course it’s legal. We do it every time we view a web page.
The problem comes when we consider exactly what kinds of files are being downloaded.
Illegal file downloads
Downloading copyrighted files without permission is illegal.
It doesn’t matter what technology you happen to use to do it: bitTorrent, FTP, web downloads, email, or even getting a CD or DVD in the mail. If the material is copyrighted, and you didn’t pay for or otherwise get the legal right or license to receive those files, you are in violation of copyright law.
In other words, downloading a copy of a file you don’t have the right to download is illegal, no matter how you do it.
Unfortunately, bitTorrent technology has become confused with illegal file sharing, simply because so much of that illegal activity uses that technology.
So let’s be clear:
- The technology is legal.
- BitTorrent is legal.
- Torrent files are legal.
- Using any technology to download copyrighted material that you don’t have the right to is illegal.
And yes, bitTorrent and bitTorrent-like technology can most definitely be used for totally legal activities. As just one example, many Linux distributions are made available using bitTorrent. It’s perfectly legal, and exactly the kind of large download that bitTorrent technology was designed for and excels at.
Using the confusion for evil
Sadly, people who should know better either don’t, or are purposely using that confusion to further their own agenda.
We’ve heard of ISPs and other facilities blocking or throttling bitTorrent file transfers, or politicians suggesting they do so, “because it’s all illegal”. It’s not. Along with blocking the illegal file sharing that’s going on, doing so blocks the legal and appropriate use of the technology as well.
If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,