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When is torrenting illegal?

by Staff Writer
29 May 2019 at 12:03hrs | Views
Peer-to-peer sharing

P2P (peer-to-peer) sharing is built upon the network of ‘peers' that function both as clients and servers, allowing for a decentralised system of data exchange. File sharing, which is the primary function of torrenting, is just one example of how P2P networks can be used. One of the early adopters of P2P file sharing was now defunct music sharing platform Napster (remember Napster? It means you're old) where users could exchange mp3 files directly between themselves instead of uploading and downloading them from the server. What makes P2P client distinct from a client-server application, is that peer-to-peer client does not require one server to be always up and available since it relies on a distributed network of users who ensure constant availability of the data and share the network load. Moreover, P2P sharing is advantageous due to its scalability: the more devices participate in the sharing network, the faster the sharing process will run.

Developed and released in 2001, BitTorrent protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing is perhaps the most popular file-sharing protocol built on a distributed structured network. Torrent file-sharing platforms are the most common use for BitTorrent. While the verb 'to torrent' is mainly used to describe an activity of obtaining a torrent from a website like Pirate Bay and joining a P2P network to download multimedia content, there is, in fact, a big variety of online services built on BitTorrent protocol. For example, P2P streaming services like Popcorn Time is a free (not entirely legal) video streaming alternative to subscription-based Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. Designed for both private and enterprise use, P2P file synchronisation tools like Resilio Sync offer a decentralised private sharing service for large files, a sort of P2P alternative to DropBox or Google Drive.

What is torrenting?

To clarify the terminology, 'torrenting' in the broadest sense means using BitTorrent client for peer-to-peer file sharing; ‘torrenting' in the narrow (and mostly illegal) sense means downloading and sharing copyrighted entertainment content that you obtain via a torrent link on Pirate Bay or similar platforms.

The main feature of P2P sharing is that each user simultaneously acts as a ‘downloader' and as an ‘uploader', i.e. while you are ‘peer-downloading' a torrent you are also 'seeding' it to other users. This is an important feature of P2P sharing, as in some countries it is illegal to ‘distribute' ('seed') copyrighted content, but not explicitly illegal to download or view it.

In 2003, the Internet's most well-known database of torrent files, The Pirate Bay, hoisted its sails to provide the world with what seemed like an unlimited supply of free entertainment content: games, films, music, p*rnography and what not. Since then, multiple Pirate Bay alternatives mushroomed over the Internet in all shapes and sizes. The fate of the original Pirate Bay, sadly, was not kind: the founders of the site were charged and prosecuted for promoting and facilitating copyright infringement. A widely publicised Pirate Bay trial in Sweden briefly contributed to the membership growth of the Swedish Pirate Party, and to the overall discussion about copyright on the EU soil. The Pirate Bay domain has been blocked in a number of countries around the world, although such blocks are easy to circumnavigate (with a VPN, or through Tor browse), and for every blocked domain a mirror version of the website is quick to emerge.

Copyright laws

Copyright laws vary from country to country. Germany is an example of not only strict laws against copyright infringement but of a systematic enforcement of these laws. The way it usually works, copyright holders hire a law firm in Germany to sent warning letters to violators. The law firm, in its turn, usually subcontracts a company that screens P2P nodes and identifies German IP addresses. The list of IP addresses is then submitted by the law firm to the ISPs requesting information on the owner of every IP address so that they could send the warning letters. Fines imposed on offenders are cited to range between €600 and €2,000. One solution to all these problems would be of course, to use a VPN, which will not only hide your browsing history from your ISP (so no one will know if you ever accessed Pirate Bay or another torrent site), but will also mask your IP so it won't get harvested by those who monitor torrent nodes.

Australia's copyright laws are some of the strictest in that part of the world. After cracking down on torrent websites by requiring all local ISPs to ban access to them, as well as a number of illegal online streaming services, Australia did not seem to do much in terms of enforcement of copyright laws on individual users. Australian copyright law prescribes over $100,000 in fines to offenders who possess, sell or distribute illegal copies of copyrighted material. However, in its strategy of combatting online piracy, Australia seems to have gone against the torrent platforms (by obliging ISPs to clock all pirate websites) rather than against the end users.

So what exactly is illegal?

What is important to underline, is that P2P services per se are NOT illegal. What is illegal, is copying and distributing copyrighted content, and if you do it by downloading a torrent file of a Hollywood blockbuster on a popular platform like Pirate Bay, or by streaming on a P2P service like Popcorn Time, you are very likely to get caught. For many users in Germany, invite-only torrent sites have become a secure way to address this problem. Closed torrent platforms that only allow users invited by other users within the network practically eliminate the risk that a contractor working for one of the copyright law firms will be able to inspect the torrent nodes and harvest relevant IP addresses.

In other countries, like Switzerland for example, data protection laws determine that IP address is ‘private data' and therefore cannot be requested by copyright enforcers in order to identify alleged copyright violators.

Source - Byo24News