In many countries, downloading (torrenting) copyrighted content is illegal. In some countries, it could even result in getting a huge fine or land you in prison for up to three years (depending on the offense).
In the US, a lot of copyrighted content can be found in the US Copyright Office’s database. This way you can do some research before downloading to see if a download is legal (or at least, whether the content is copyrighted in the US).
Do note, however, that not all torrenting is bad: there are plenty of useful and completely legal downloads to be found on many torrenting platforms as well.
If you intend on downloading some of these torrents, and doing so securely and anonymously, we recommend using a great VPN, like Surfshark.
This VPN will keep your IP address hidden when downloading so that entities snooping around on torrent platforms won’t be able to harm your online privacy.
“Friction” between torrent downloaders and producers of music, movies, and other media has been a topic of great controversy over the last few years. However, the start of this issue can be traced back to more than two decades ago.
Napster first came online in 1999 as a peer-to-peer (P2P) service for sharing music online. It exploded in popularity gaining 80 million users in just a few years. It was so popular that the music industry acted to shut Napster down in 2001.
Since then, the US Congress and other lawmaking bodies have created and enforced restrictions on what can be downloaded or shared online. These laws specify what downloads are illegal, and what fines users may face for violating these laws.
These days, the proverbial tug of war between “torrentors” and content creators is more centered around torrent platforms such as The Pirate Bay and RARBG.
Additionally, the rise of music and video entertainment services such as Netflix and Spotify has also meant people have other affordable and convenient means of consuming the latest entertainment releases. However, there are still a lot of people who resort to downloading torrents.
Furthermore, there is another thing regarding downloading that hasn’t changed: ignorance of the law does not excuse one from punishment, so it’s better to know what acts might be illegal when downloading content online and the punishments you might face. That’s why we’ll tell you all about this in this article.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act
In 1998, the United States passed an amendment to Title 17, the law that deals with copyright matters. The point of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was to update copyright law to deal with digital technology.
You are probably most familiar with the DMCA from seeing it when you find a YouTube video has been taken down for being in violation of the act. Alternatively, you might see it sometimes when you’re searching for a full movie on Google, at the bottom of the page.
What does the DMCA say about downloading?
The DMCA essentially comprises three main elements.
First, it prohibits the creation and distribution of technology created with the purpose of circumventing copyright-protecting measures. Secondly, it puts harsher punishments in place for people who violate someone’s copyright.
Lastly, the DMCA limits the liability of internet service providers or website and platform owners when copyright-infringing content is uploaded or downloaded by a user of this platform. For the purpose of this article, mainly the latter two points are very important.
As part, or rather as a condition of this lessened liability, if an ISP or website detects copyright infringement, they agree to take down the content. This also occurs when a company is notified of content that infringes on copyright.
When a copyright holder finds a video on YouTube, for example, that they believe violates their rights, they can request the service to take it down. When you go to load that page and see the notice that YouTube has removed the video for DMCA violations, this is usually what has happened.
It is in YouTube’s, or any other platform’s for that matter, best interest to comply with these notices. After all, if they remove the content, they cannot be held liable.
The punishment for DMCA violations can include both civil and criminal penalties. If found guilty, a person may be required to pay up to $2,500 in actual damages for each violation. Repeat offenders may face up to triple those damages.
Criminal penalties include fines of up to $500,000 and up to five years in prison for the first offense. Repeat offenders face up to $1 million in fines and up to ten years in prison. The court will likely also grant an injunction against the guilty to prevent transgressors from further violations in the future.
The NET Act
The NET Act is short for the No Electronic Theft Act. This law was passed in 1997 and is an attempt to govern online piracy. Piracy is when copyrighted content is copied and distributed, whether for money or for free. The NET Act aims at curbing piracy of music, video games, movies, and software.
The lesser and the greater category
The NET Act is split into two categories. The lesser category criminalizes copyright infringement of material with a value of at least $1,000.
The greater category includes profiting on copyrighted material of at least $2,500 and involves at least 10 copies of material within 180 days. Note that the lesser category does not require the violator to have made any profit from the material.
It should also be noted that the value of the material is cumulative. If a violator uploads a song that is downloaded 100 times, each download will add to the value counted against him or her.
NET Act fines
Punishment for the lesser category includes fines of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison. For the greater category, the NET Act provides for penalties of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. On top of these criminal penalties, the copyright holder may also seek civil claims for the value of the copyrighted content.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is designed to specifically target hacking. While passed originally in 1986, the law has been amended multiple times. The most recent changes brought it under the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act.
The law gives the federal government very broad powers to counter any computer activity it feels may threaten government, banking, or businesses.
While designed specifically to target hacking, this law in its broadest interpretation can be used to target any illegal downloading of information. The activity in the act can also be used to punish those who are not directly involved in such crimes.
For example, if your friend illegally downloads music or videos and passes them on to you, the CFAA can also punish you.
The CFAA also specifically covers unauthorized access or use of a computer or computer service. This means if you use a software or website in a way outside of the terms of service you agreed to, you could be charged under the CFAA.
For example, Facebook prohibits using its service with a false name. If you create an account that does not use your real name, you are technically in violation of the CFAA.
There are many different penalties for violation of the different parts of the CFAA. A first offense, though, can be punishable by up to five years in prison and fines. Some portions of the CFAA provide penalties of life in prison if you are deemed a repeat offender. Fines can range from a few thousand dollars all the way to the millions!
What Downloads Are Illegal?
Is torrenting legal? The answer is simple: it depends. Downloading something is illegal if it has a copyright on it. According to US copyright law, copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”
It applies from “the moment it is created” and is fixed in a tangible form. However, in order for creators to sue for copyright infringement in the US, they need to have registered their work with the US Copyright Office.
The above makes things a little bit easier. Because this means you can find many copyrighted works (in the US) by using the Copyright Office’s search function. There are also some special rules which apply to older copyrighted works.
For instance, did you know that a copyright ceases to exist 70 years after the creator passes away? Furthermore, there is also something called the Public Domain. All works which fall into this category are free for the public to use. Most works that were created before 1923 fall into this category.
Note: The above only applies to copyright law in the US. Although there is some overlap between US copyright rules and those in other countries, copyright laws can differ from country to country. Therefore, always make sure to check what the law is in the country where you’re residing.
Be Warned: Avoid Distributing or Uploading Copyright Content
In many instances, distributors of illegal items or content are punished more severely than those who consume it. It is no different with digital content. Therefore, if you upload a torrent and make it available to (large numbers of) people, you might be punished even more harshly than for just downloading the torrent.
Due to the nature of peer-to-peer platforms such as torrenting sites, downloaders of torrents automatically also serve as seeders or uploaders of those torrents to make them available to other users.
As such, beware that if you’re using torrenting sites and you get caught, you might be punished not just for downloading torrents, but also for making them available to other users.
Of course, many jurisdictions might understand this is just the nature of torrenting platforms. However, it might be wishful thinking to assume that all legal systems take this into account.
Which Countries Allow for and Enforce Download Fines?
So far, we have primarily focused on laws regarding downloading in the United States. However, there are other countries in which you could face a hefty fine and punishment when downloading copyrighted material.
To give you an idea of the situation in other countries around the world, we included a useful table below that shows you the countries that allow and do not punish downloading for personal use, some countries where you can get a fine for illegal downloads, and some that actively enforce download fines.
Countries and their policy on torrenting copyrighted material
|Policy regarding downloading torrents||Countries|
|Downloading allowed (for personal use)||Poland, Spain, Switzerland|
|Download Fines (not enforced)||Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, The Netherlands, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Uruguay|
|Download fines (enforced)||Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States|
In most parts of Europe, illegal downloading could result in a fine or a warning from the local police. In the United States and other parts of the world, this is also the case. Japan, India, and Malaysia all have laws against illegal downloading.
If you live in one of these countries or will be visiting soon, make sure you avoid downloading copyrighted material!
Look for legal ways to watch your movies, listen to your music, or play your games. You can usually rely on services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Steam. We do know that these services often enforce their own set of restrictions, such as the geo-restrictions that Netflix enforces.
Luckily, however, there are some easy ways to get around these restrictions. For instance, you can easily get access to the U.S. version of Netflix wherever you are, by changing your IP address with a VPN.
Important notice: Laws can change. Before engaging in downloading, always make sure you’re aware of the current laws of the country you’re in. This way, you’ll always know exactly what is and isn’t allowed.
This also goes for utilizing ways to get around geographic restrictions, in which case you should also make sure to read through any user agreements you are bound by and act in accordance with these.
Which Countries Block Download Websites?
In some countries, (torrent) download websites such as The Pirate Bay aren’t accessible due to online geo-blocks. Some torrent websites even get taken down repeatedly, which results in large numbers of alternatives and mirror sites.
By setting up these blocks, authorities try to keep civilians from finding websites from which they can download illegal content from. Below, we’ve listed all countries known to be blocking websites having to do with (illegal) downloading.
Countries where (torrent) download websites have been blocked:
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
How Do Copyright Owners Find Out Torrentors and Sue Them?
In most countries and jurisdictions, the main parties who are interested in finding torrentors are copyright owners. After all, these are the people that have the most to lose when people download their content for free. But how do they find them?
Copyright owners themselves, or more likely, parties they contract, can use software to easily monitor and analyze torrent sites and see which IP addresses are involved in uploading and downloading their content on torrent sites.
Once they have these IP addresses, it’s easy to find the internet service provider (ISP) these belong to. They can now approach the provider and essentially try to intimidate them into handing over the personal information associated with the IP address.
Once the copyright owners have their hands on your personal information, they can file a lawsuit against you, which might cost you a lot of money. What’s more likely, however, is that you’ll get a notice from your ISP urging you to stop illegal torrenting.
Nevertheless, you should never assume that just because many don’t get into trouble when torrenting, you won’t ever. Moreover, in many jurisdictions, infringing on copyright is also considered an offense under criminal law, potentially resulting in hefty fines or even jail time.
This mainly happens if people leave their information and IP address unprotected.
Use a VPN to Download Securely and Anonymously
Let’s make one thing clear: we condemn illegal downloading since content creators should obviously get paid for what they create.
However, we also understand that many legal systems have not caught up with the rapid development of the internet. Therefore, many download rules and punishments may not be proportional to their offenses, especially if an individual downloads content that they thought was legal or just didn’t do enough research.
Furthermore, a lot of content on torrenting platforms is completely legal. We understand that even many “legal torrentors” prefer to be anonymous on a platform susceptible to which hunts on torrentors.
The idea of someone collecting IP addresses and personal information on a platform they use might just be unpleasant to them, especially if they value internet privacy.
For these people, who wish to download securely and anonymously, a VPN is a great solution. After all, a VPN will easily conceal your IP address. It does so by guiding your data traffic through one of its (many) VPN servers.
As a result, the IP address that people who track you on torrent sites will see is the VPN server’s IP. This makes it impossible to find out who you are if the VPN provider has a solid no-logs policy. One such provider, which we greatly recommend for anonymous downloading is Surfshark.
Surfshark is a great VPN provider with excellent speeds and a no-logs policy. After all, the fact that they are registered in the British Virgin Islands, means they’re not legally obliged to keep logs of what their users do and their real IP addresses.
Lastly, their VPN service is incredibly affordable, and they have a fantastic offer too!
- Very user-friendly and works with Netflix and torrents
- 30-day money-back guarantee. No questions asked!
- Cheap with many extra options
What Kind of Fines Can You Expect?
Not every country that gives fines for illegal downloading does so in the same way, or in the same amount. The sum of the fine can differ greatly depending on where you are. In Germany, for example, individuals caught downloading copyrighted content can expect a fine between €900 and €1000.
A woman in the US was forced to pay $80,000 per downloaded song, which came down to about 1.9 million dollars for 24 songs! In some countries, illegal downloading could even result in a prison sentence, depending on the severity of the crime.
In Japan, you might get a fine worth about $25,700 — or end up in prison for up to two years.
Not all illegal downloaders will end up paying the price for their actions. By sending out high fines to just a few individuals, authorities try to show how severe punishments can be.
They hope to scare off other offenders this way. The actual consequences will differ per case. If you illegally download a film in Japan, you won’t be sent to jail straight away, although there is a chance you might end up there.
The table below gives an indication of the possible consequences of illegally downloading in different countries.
Potential consequences of illegal torrenting
|Belgium||Fines up to €65,000|
|Germany||Fines between €900 and €1,000|
|Finland||One man received a fine of €2,200|
|France||Up to €300,000 and three years in prison|
|India||Up to three years in prison|
|Japan||Up to two years in prison or a maximum fine of $25,700|
|Malaysia||On average about €430 (converted) per downloaded song|
|New Zealand||Fines up to $15,000|
|United Arab Emirates||$1,200 per “act of piracy”|
|United States||One woman had to pay $80,000 per download song ($1.9 million in total)|
|United Kingdom||Up to three years in prison and a fine of £150,000|
The Bottom Line
The laws and fines for illegal downloading can be confusing. The fact that users can be potentially liable for even seemingly innocent mistakes can make many people uncomfortable with downloads of any kind. Some platforms are often shut down as well. For instance, when ExtraTorrent shut down, it spawned a bunch of ExtraTorrent alternatives almost immediately.
As the information age is still rather young, the laws to govern it are still in development and may not be a good representation of justice in every case. It is best to read the terms of service for websites and software.
The best thing to do is to use a VPN if you’re going to download something online, as that hides your IP address and encrypts your traffic completely.
Have a look at our FAQ to see if we’ve already answered your question. If not, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment with your question and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
You can definitely get fined for torrenting. In a lot of countries, violating copyright is not just a civil matter, but also a criminal offense. This means you can get a fine for illegal torrenting and even jail time (in some places). That’s why caution is always important when downloading and you should always check applicable laws on downloading before torrenting.
Downloading music for personal use without paying for it or without using a subscription-based service that has agreements with artists, such as Spotify, is illegal in many countries. In fact, of the countries whose policy on downloading we could clearly identify, we only found three countries where downloading for personal use is allowed: Poland, Spain and Switzerland.
In most jurisdictions, downloading something is only illegal if it has a copyright on it. The best way to see if a movie, song, or other content is copyrighted, is by doing an online search. In the US for instance, you can check out the US Copyright Office’s database to see if something has a copyright on it.