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Is Bittorrent legal?

I tell my kids if they have to ask if something is legal, that’s a good sign it isn’t. But when it comes to computer matters, sometimes it’s a bit grayer. Bittorrent is a good example. Is Bittorrent legal?

Bittorrent itself isn’t inherently legal or illegal, as it’s just a protocol. What you’re using Bittorrent for is what’s legal or illegal.

Bittorrent itself is legal, it’s just a protocol

Is Bittorrent legal?

There’s nothing inherently illegal about Bittorrent. Those ads that say Bittorrent is illegal are scaremongering. It’s what you do with Bittorrent that’s legal or illegal.

Bittorrent is just a way to distribute data in a decentralized manner. The first time I heard of it, it was as a way to download Linux distributions faster. In 2001 when it was introduced, the Internet could be a fragile thing, so downloading large files as thousands of tiny pieces coming from many different addresses improved speed and reliability.

How fragile was the Internet in 2001? On 9/11, it was nearly impossible to get news online. All the major US news outlets were saturated, so there was no guarantee the page would load, and even less guarantee the story you wanted would load when you clicked on it. In the office where I worked, we resorted to getting news from British sites, which were less crowded.

Today the situation is better. On 1/6/2021, another very heavy news day due to the storming of the US capitol, the major news sites could all handle the load.

So at least part of the original reason for Bittorrent is no longer a factor today. But it’s still very popular.

Legal uses of Bittorrent

There’s not a lot of reason to use Bittorrent for downloading Linux distributions anymore. More traditional file hosting is fast and reliable enough for that now.

That said, some musicians and record labels use Bittorrent to distribute content. Not everything on Bittorrent that’s from a band or record label you’ve heard of is necessarily illegal. Sub Pop Records (Nirvana’s original label) and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Nine Inch Nails are two examples of fairly big names who’ve used Bittorrent to distribute their music.

A few misconceptions about copyright

But there are more than a few misconceptions about copyright floating around out there. The concept of “abandonware” is the big one. There is a very common misconception that if you can’t buy something anymore, it’s abandoned, and therefore OK to copy.

Copyright law used to work a little like that. It used to be that copyrights expired if the rightsholder didn’t renew it. But even then, there were very specific lengths of time involved. Generally speaking, most copyrighted works published after 1978 won’t expire until 95 years after their publication. And in many cases it can be longer. A publisher can release the rights, but it doesn’t happen automatically. At least not for things likely to have been published during your lifetime or mine.

I understand the moral argument to copying things you can no longer buy. But there’s no legal leg to stand on.

But in that case, it’s not Bittorrent that’s the problem. It’s the copying. Bittorrent isn’t illegal. Violating copyright is.

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