Lawsuit after lawsuit, is Bit Torrent illegal?

Alexis Wilke's picture

You may have heard, again, that Bit Torrent was involved in a lawsuit on September 4, 20101. Each time, the lawsuit is about copyrighted material and in this specific case it is about a number of people sharing porn movies via Bit Torrent.

So... Is Bit Torrent illegal?

The short answer is: No. There is nothing illegal about Bit Torrent. No more than accessing the Internet or reading a magazine.

Let me define what Bit Torrent is and hopefully you will understand the reasons why it is used to share large files such as a complete CD or a movie.

Conventional Client/Server System

Imagine two computers connected to each others via a direct network connection (i.e. clean connection with no interferences). One computer wants to download a file from the other. What happens?

The computer that wants to download the data connects to the other and sends the necessary orders to start the download. There are two computers and therefore two locations with potential limits. The limits Bit Torrent works on are the following:

  • The amount of data the sender can send to you every second
  • The amount of data the receiver can accept every second
One server to many clients illustration.
Usual environment: One Server to Many Clients

In most cases, the amount of data that the receiver can accept every second is pretty large. On most DSL/Cable connections it is around 1 mega bit (1 million bits) per second. That's about 100Kb a second.

On the other hand, a home computer will have a rather poor output as a sender. That can be very limited. Many of us can only send about 64 kilo bit (64,000 bits) per second. In contrast, this is 8Kb a second!

So... if you want to offer a file for download on your computer, whether the receiver can receive 8Kb or 100Kb, the download speed on his computer will be 8Kb because that's the maximum speed at which you can send your data.

And 8Kb it is... if that user is the only person who wants to download your file. Imagine that just 5 people wanted to download that file... That's 1.6Kb per person, assuming that the sender's computer can properly manage its network and really use 1/5th of its bandwidth for each person.

Bit Torrent Unusual System

This is where Bit Torrent comes in. So far, we talked about one server that has to distribute one file to many users. How about 1,000 servers serving one file to 100 users? Yes. In that case, each receiver can receive close to 80Kb a second which is likely going to swamp their modem! Why is that? Bit Torrent manages what is called Distributed Transfers.

Bit Torrent: Many Servers to One Client.
Bit Torrent environment: Many Servers to One Client

How does that work?

Whenever you download a file via Bit Torrent, the system checks all the available servers, choose a few of them and starts the download of different sections of the file from each server. Say 5 servers are used, the first server can just send the first 5th of the file, the second server will send the second 5th, the third server will send the third 5th, et cætera2.

So... Do you think Bit Torrent is illegal? Is it illegal to download a file and to do so using multiple computers? Most certainly not. Unfortunately, most of the time, the technology used is closely linked to the actual illegal matter and thus you often will hear about Bit Torrent in copyright infringement.

Again, Bit Torrent is not illegal, what is illegal is offering copyrighted materials on the Internet without the prior consent of their owners3.

Is there other similar technologies in use today?

Yes. There are 2 that you use daily (well, each time you use the Internet at least,) and another that is often viewed as controversial... Again, sharing is in the human nature, and it is not illegal to share, is it?

Domain Name

When you go to a website, you use its domain name. For instance, this web-page uses the domain name (Some techies use IP addresses, but that's becoming really rare.)

The IP address of a domain name is generally defined on a single computer. Large companies may also assign multiple addresses to the same domain name, but I won't enter in such details here. That one single computer is called the Master. It is the only computer that has the definitive answer about the IP address that is used by the given domain.

When you ask for an IP address, using the domain name, the request is sent to your ISP computer. That computer has a name server too. If it knows the answer, that's it, you get the answer right back. If not, it will ask the next computer on the Internet for the answer. If that one does not know it either, it asks the next, up until the master answers if no one else had the answer.

This is an incredibly good solution to lower the load of domain name requests. It distributes the work between all the Domain Name Servers. This is very similar to Bit Torrent as it uses many computers to do work that would otherwise generate a much large load on everyone.

Page Caching

When you visit a website page, it may actually come from a cache and not the server that generated the page. These caches are generally updated often. A large ISP, such as AOL, better have such caches if they want to save on bandwidth. Imagine that 1,000 of your customers want to see that one page about Bit Torrent talking about another lawsuit... By caching the data found when the first user accesses the page, and distributing the same data 999 times the others, you just saved yourself 999 external accesses. Even if you cache the page for just a few minutes, you save big time when you have a big network.

This is similar to Bit Torrent, since a different computer than the master can answer your request. Although this is not exactly the same since that other computer is unique in your organization (the request is not distributed in nature.)

Wireless Sharing

Daihinia multi-hop ad-hoc network connections.Daihinia software offers a product that let you share your wireless (WiFi) bandwidth. There are two sides to this software (exactly like Bit Torrent that offers the upload and download sides.) It transforms your laptop in a WiFi hub offering others to connect to your computer, and it connects you to other computer that run the same software. If at least one of the laptop is connected to the Internet then all the laptops have access to the Internet.

This is particularly useful in places where you don't have connections to the Internet at every other corner or such connections are very expensive. It lets users share their connections and eventually some of their data (although by default the packets only pass through your computer, no more, so no data sharing on your computer unless you want to.)

In terms of functionality, this is very similar to Bit Torrent since Hop 3 could disappear and thus User 2 would want to connect to User 4 directly (when close enough.) And one computer can connect to several hops at once to increase the network bandwidth.

So... Can I have Bit Torrent on my Snap! Website?

Although Snap! Websites supports the Bit Torrent protocol, we do not currently offer that functionality to our users. In most cases, Bit Torrent is for users to install on their home computer and increase the network that way.

If you have a real need, feel free to send us a request. We'll check into it and see whether we can fulfill it.

  • 1. See full article on The Hollywood Reporter.
  • 2. The full Bit Torrent protocol is much more complicated since it takes the speed, delay, location of all the servers concerned, but this is the basic idea.
  • 3. Although publicly accessible content can always be shared, content that's not readily (publicly) available on the Internet is definitively still protected.