A torn black pirate's flag.

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve probably come across the term “torrenting” and been warned not to do it. This may have made you wonder what torrenting is, and what exactly the problem is with it.

In one word, it’s piracy. Torrents are the number one way in which copyrighted material is distributed among people who haven’t paid for it. No matter if it’s movies, TV shows, or games, if it was ripped off, you can get it on a torrent site. Let’s take a closer look at torrents and how they work.

What Is Torrenting?

Before we can talk about the issues associated with torrenting, we need to understand a little better how it works. Normally, when you download a file you send a request to a server and that server, usually operated by the company that runs the site you’re downloading from, sends you that file.

Torrenting is different in that it’s a decentralized system. Instead of sending a request to a server when you click a download button, you’re instead downloading a small file called a tracker and opening it with a dedicated BitTorrent client.

The tracker connects you to a group of other users (usually called a swarm), some of whom have the whole file, while others have just a little bit of it. As you download the file, you’re simultaneously uploading what you already have, making you both a downloader as well as an uploader.

The people connected to the swarm that have the whole file are called seeders, while people that are still in the process of getting it are called leechers. The more seeders a swarm has, the faster the download will usually be, though having too many leechers can throw off the balance enough to slow down the process.

Decentralized vs. Centralized

At its core, torrenting is a peer-to-peer (P2P) form of downloading files that doesn’t rely on central servers but instead on each member of a swarm to supply a file. As such, it’s a great way to distribute files on the cheap and it’s used for all kinds of legal downloads, mainly for open-source software.

Its downside is that it’s usually a little slower than a direct download—though a healthy swarm is still pretty fast—and that it takes up more bandwidth as you need to upload as well as download. There’s also an unwritten rule that you need to seed for a while after getting the whole file, it’s just good manners.

Why Use Torrents for Piracy?

Because of its decentralized nature, torrenting is ideal for distributing copyrighted material. If files are kept on a single server, then copyright watchdogs and law enforcement can very easily come after that server. However, if you distribute those same files across a network, it’s much harder to take down any illegally hosted files.

Roughly 20 years ago, if you wanted to download copyrighted material (often called warez) you could do so via direct download on music-focused sites like Napster or Kazaa—pirating movies wasn’t that big yet, then. However, once the music industry caught wind of it, they were quickly shut down, Napster in early 2001, and Kazaa later the same year.

Going after a P2P system like torrenting is a lot tougher, though, and the fight against the biggest site of them all is a good example. Ever since its founding in 2003, The Pirate Bay has never made any bones that it serves as a way to distribute copyrighted material. From the start, authorities in several countries came after the site and its founders, who ended up on trial in 2009 and went to prison until their release in 2015.

Between 2003 and now, though, you could still access The Pirate Bay through any of its many proxies and download warez. This is because the site itself is just a repository for trackers, the files are kept on the computers of seeders and leechers throughout the world. To shut down even a single torrent, you’d need to shut down every single person seeding it, and most of the leechers, too.

Fighting Piracy

That’s not to say you can access The Pirate Bay or any similar sites with impunity, though. If you were to visit any of these sites now and start downloading the latest Hollywood blockbuster you can expect to receive some kind of notice from your local copyright watchdog, threatening fines and legal action for pirating content.

In many countries (though far from all), these watchdogs and the authorities are working together, keeping tabs on what’s going in and out of torrenting sites. The only way to avoid this surveillance is to use a virtual private network, a tool that helps mask your IP address and thus making it almost impossible for you to be tracked while visiting these sites.

Still, though, even VPNs may not be enough to keep you safe in the years to come as the big Hollywood studios are suing VPN providers in a bid to keep them from helping pirates. It could be that the days of high seas activity on the internet are numbered.

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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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