A judge's gavel.

If you want to torrent copyrighted material, a VPN will hide what you’re doing. Well, for now, at least: If it’s up to Hollywood, torrenters will soon no longer be able to hide behind anonymous IP addresses provided by VPNs and they’re taking VPN providers to court to make it happen.

Not Just a Concern for BitTorrent Users

Over the last few years, several VPN providers have found themselves on the receiving end of legal action on behalf of the movie industry. Some cases have been won by VPNs, but others have led to VPNs pledging to track certain users or even going out of business altogether.

Let’s take a look at some of the cases that have been brought forward, their fallout, and what it means—not only for the average torrenter, but for all VPN users. Will Hollywood be able to shut down your favorite VPN?

Hollywood and Torrenters

Movie studios and distributors have never made it a secret that they want to stamp out the piracy of their products. Torrent sites have been a particular target for lawsuits and in a few cases their complaints have led to government action. Examples include the world-famous The Pirate Bay as well as Kickass Torrents, both of which were taken down by law enforcement.

Though these were touted as massive wins for copyright law, the fact is that they were hollow victories, at best. The Pirate Bay was up and running again while the crime scene tape was still hanging. Right now, you could visit any of a hundred proxy sites and have access to the full catalog of pirated material.

The biggest change for torrenters has been that you can now be fined for committing software piracy. If you were to use Bittorrent now to download a popular Hollywood film, you could expect some kind of notice to appear in your digital or physical mailbox warning you to knock it off or face fines.

These fines are no joke, either: In 2009, a Boston jury made a man pay $675,000 in damages for downloading 30 songs, while, in 2021, Danish police arrested six people that were running a torrenting site. Your author has also received menacing letters from copyright watchdogs while living in the United States in 2016, threatening unnamed fines and action for downloading a Hollywood film.

Torrenting and VPNs

To avoid these punitive measures, there is one powerful tool torrenters can use: virtual private networks. These handy tools can spoof your IP address (one of the most important ways in which you can be identified online) and thus make torrenting safe again. Even if a copyright watchdog sees you torrenting files, there’s nothing that can be done as you can’t be tracked.

Read all about how VPNs work if you’re a little fuzzy on the details.

Of course, you could go up to the VPN in question and request users’ details to find out who has been torrenting what, but as most VPNs don’t keep logs (or at least claim to not keep them), there is nothing to find.

Hollywood VPN Lawsuits

That hasn’t prevented studios and movie distributors from trying, though, and over the last few years plenty of suits have been filed. Some are focused on forcing VPNs to start logging user information, while others have focused on getting some kind of remuneration or even shutting services down.

For example, in one case, VPN provider Private Internet Access was sued in a bid to get information about customers that had downloaded the film Angel Has Fallen — apparently having had to watch the film wasn’t punishment enough. In this instance, it seems that legal action was contained to threats as PIA never received a subpoena for the records.

A little more serious was the lawsuit brought against LiquidVPN, a small provider which rather aggressively advertised itself as a great solution to torrent and stream pirated material. The suit alleged $10 million in damages. It seems that, rather than pay, LiquidVPN upped sticks and simply disappeared. Pretty unpleasant for anybody that prepaid a year of use, we guess.

Hollywood Escalates

To a certain extent, you can expect suits like our two examples above; after all, the film industry is worth billions and they don’t want to miss out on a single penny due to piracy. It’s no wonder then that when a company lawyer sees a loophole they could exploit they’re going to give it a shot. However, it seems like Hollywood is now turning to some decidedly nasty tactics to persuade judges to take action against VPNs.

A good example was seen earlier this year when lawyers representing more than 20 movie studios and distributors took a number of VPNs to court, including some of the biggest VPNS in the business, like ExpressVPN and PIA.

Not only was it argued that VPNs were aiding in downloading copyrighted material, but also that VPNs make it easy to distribute child porn, organize terrorist attacks, and spread hate speech, among other horrendous crimes.

In their defense, the VPNs in question put up that the Hollywood lawyers were pretty much just trying to rile up the judge and jury by equating their services with giving a platform to such nasty activity.

In the end, this suit was settled on undisclosed terms, but it does show that Hollywood is willing to pull out all the stops in their battle against piracy. If lawyers can equate VPN use with truly heinous crimes like distributing child porn or placing bomb threats in the minds of people and especially judges, it could very well be that VPNs will see their activities badly curtailed in future.

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Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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