Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

I'm addicted to downloading stuff via BitTorrent. Will I be prosecuted?


I've become addicted to BitTorrent, and use it regularly for downloading movies, TV shows, comics, music and software. Am I likely to be prosecuted?

This anonymous question provoked a number of comments from BitTorrent users wishing to remain similarly anonymous; they, at least, are aware of its dubious legality. BitTorrent, for those with squeaky-clean internet habits, is an internet protocol that's particularly suited to sharing hefty files such as videos and albums. "I keep telling myself that there are millions of others doing it," writes one reader, "but I don't imagine that nothing is being done about it." He's right on both counts.

"Although downloading copyrighted material is a breach of the law," explains Simon Baggs at media law specialists Wiggin & Co, "uploading is a bigger issue for copyright owners, because it makes that file available to thousands of people." And those who use BitTorrent are exposed to legal challenges, as they're all responsible for the distribution process. Once you've searched on a BitTorrent website for, say, a film, downloaded the small "torrent" file and launched it, you're immediately connected to everyone who is downloading the same thing. Your collective uploading and downloading power is then harnessed for its distribution. "And what makes BitTorrent so fast," writes another reader, "is that you can't choose not to share [or upload] that file." The majority of users download copyrighted material with the mere defence of safety in numbers - or maintain that downloading US TV shows that haven't been broadcast here yet isn't illegal. (It is.)

There are two consequences of copyright infringement: one is civil - you can be sued - and then there's criminal liability for breaking copyright law. How would you be tracked down? Most BitTorrent software displays the IP addresses of fellow file-sharers, and some copyright owners have started to monitor these by themselves becoming BitTorrent users. And as another reader comments: "Once they have IP addresses, it's easy to obtain a court order revealing names and addresses." Simon Baggs says: "Each time you do it - just as with shoplifting - you're taking a calculated risk. The chances of your getting caught are not high, but it could be you."