For years people have been sharing large files online via torrenting sites. The most famous portals are sites such as the Pirate Bay - which has been involved in numerous legal disputes - plus TorrentHound, ExtraTorrent, and a number of others. While the principle of torrenting is completely benign, the most common use of the technology is to distribute pirated versions of the latest movies, TV shows, music, and software. So what is torrenting, and how can you make sure you stay on the right side of the law? We explain the legality of torrents and legal uses.

Related: Torrenting vs Streaming

Are torrents legal?

Torrenting is simply a method of sharing large files online. Unlike a standard download where you click a link and the file is saved to your hard drive from a single source, a torrent file is shared out among a number of users and downloaded in parts that are then automatically assembled into the movie, album, or relevant media. The reason for this approach is to reduce the strain on any one source, sharing the load among the users.

To download a torrent you'll need a torrent software client such as uTorrent and to visit a dedicated torrent site. For a more detailed description on how this all works, and why you might want to reconsider doing it, take a look at our guide on How to Download a Torrent.

In and of itself torrents and torrenting is not illegal. But, and this is a tremendously important caveat, this changes depending on what you download. Back in 2010 the UK Government released public spending data via BitTorrent and various Linux operating systems have been shared completely legally via torrent sites for years. The reason you can download these files with alacrity is that the copyright holders have agreed to this method of distribution. 

If the copyright holder hasn't agreed, which is the case with pretty much anything you would otherwise have to pay for, then torrenting is seen as stealing.

A quick look at the most popular media downloaded via torrents in 2016 gives you an idea of why it makes the headlines so often. Game of Thrones, HBO's hugely popular fantasy epic, headed the list followed by the Walking Dead and Westworld. On the movie side of things Deadpool proved the most popular, accompanied by Batman vs Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

are torrents legal

As you can imagine these premium titles are not officially made available for you to download for free. The huge production costs involved guarantee that they will only be found on paid services such as NowTV, Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, or Google Play Video. 

But who is going to notice me downloading a few files?

As far as the law appears to us (we advise on tech - we're not legal experts) torrenting is seen as making a copy of a file, therefore if you don't have the permission of the copyright holder to download and store that file you're in breach of copyright laws. This becomes a lot murkier if you stream copyrighted material, as explained in our Is streaming pirated movies legal article, but our advice is simple: steer clear of both if you want to stay on the right side of the law.

Yes, you might get away with it. Conversely you might not. But why take the risk? You're also ripping off the people who have invested vast sums of money to create the content. The Google Play store often runs promotions where you get money off of movie rentals or purchasing TV series, and if you really can't wait to catch up on your favourite show then you could try purchasing one episode at a time. They usually cost less than a coffee.

Take a look at our Netflix Vs Amazon Prime video comparison review to keep yourself on the straight and narrow.