Is Torrenting Illegal in the US?

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Jalluri Sirisha
Written by
Jalluri Sirisha

Updated · Oct 04, 2023

Jalluri Sirisha
Computer Networks Expert, VPN Expert | Joined June 2023 | LinkedIn
Jalluri Sirisha

Sirisha is a networking enthusiast with a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering. She... | See full bio

April Grace Asgapo
Edited by
April Grace Asgapo


April Grace Asgapo
Joined June 2023 | LinkedIn
April Grace Asgapo

April is a proficient content writer with a knack for research and communication. With a keen eye fo... | See full bio

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In essence, torrenting is legal in the US and most other countries. As a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing method, torrents transfer data between “peers” without needing a central server.

However, since its inception in 2001, torrents have become almost synonymous with piracy. With that, torrenting becomes illegal when the files shared are copyrighted material.

In this article, we will discuss what happens when you are caught torrenting copyrighted content and how VPNs can help.

🔑 Key Takeaways

  • Torrenting is a legal Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file-sharing method in the US and other countries, transferring data between peers without a central server.
  • The act of Torrenting becomes illegal when copyrighted material is shared; copyright laws protect copyright holders and creators.
  • Getting caught torrenting copyrighted content in the US can result in copyright infringement notices, ISP monitoring, and potential legal action.

The Prohibition of Torrenting Copyrighted Content

Copyright laws are in effect to protect copyright holders and creators from the illegal use and distribution of their work.

For example, 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) addresses the relationship between copyright and the Internet.

The DMCA updates the US copyright law to deal with digital content. Here are its three major updates:

  • Protecting online service providers (such as internet service providers) if their users engage in copyright infringement and establishing the notice-and-takedown system
  • Legal protection against unauthorized access to copyrighted materials – as in the case of “cracking” of software or circumventing account restrictions on streaming sites
  • Protection against unlawful misrepresentation of copyright information like names of authors or copyright holders and titles of works

Torrenting copyrighted material is a form of “distribution.” This is illegal since distribution is an exclusive right of the copyright holder.

How about the downloading of copyrighted materials for personal use? Let’s answer that in the next section. 

Downloading Copyrighted Material for Personal Use

Individual downloaders are not safe from copyright infringement laws with the enactment of the No Electronic Theft Act (NET Act). It prohibits downloading of copyrighted files even without aiming for monetary or commercial benefits.

Before the NET Act was enacted in 1998, infringement must be for “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” Merely uploading or downloading files doesn’t fall into that criteria.

With the NET Act, the threshold for criminal liability settles to “more than $1000 worth of retail value” for infringed materials within 180 days.

This applies whether the materials were used for profit or not. It also specifies the penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment.

🎉 Fun Fact: 

59% of users know downloading or streaming pirated content is illegal and can get them in trouble. 39% report that they don’t care if entertainment studios lose billions from the piracy of songs and videos.

Only 19% report that they would stop pirating because of its financial consequences to the industry.

What Happens When You Are Caught Torrenting in the US?

In 2020, the US had the highest number of visits to media piracy sites worldwide, with around 12.5 billion visits.

Considering that the US has relatively stricter policies in terms of copyright and has more capacity to enforce policies, you can get in trouble when you’re caught torrenting illegal content.

The possibility of getting caught torrenting exists as anti-piracy campaigns are enforced to counteract this trend.

Now, let’s discuss how you are going to get caught.

Copyright trolls are third-party companies that do business by monitoring torrenters who illegally download copyrighted content. They monitor public trackers to look for individual IP addresses, then inform the ISPs hosting these IPs.

Production companies usually hire them to sniff out pirates on their behalf. They sometimes join torrenting “swarms” to pick out IP addresses.

  • ISP Monitoring

Internet service providers (ISPs) store users’ traffic data for some time. Comcast maintains their users’ activity records for 6 months, while AT&T stores them for a year. 

Technically, all your online activities are laid bare to ISPs, except when you use a VPN. Without the added protection of one, downloading illegal torrents could lead to a copyright infringement notice from your ISP.

If you’re caught torrenting copyrighted files, you’ll receive a warning in the form of a copyright infringement notice from your ISP.

Based on the US laws, an IP address is not a person, but the notice will be addressed to the primary account holder.

After a few warnings (3 to 6 “strikes” depending on the ISP), given that you didn’t follow them, additional actions can be expected, such as:

  • Throttling your internet connection speed to limit your downloading capacity
  • Banning you from the service
  • The copyright holder proceeds to legal actions.

In case of a lawsuit, you should immediately seek legal advice. You can get help from volunteer organizations with expertise in these cases, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Staying Safe While Torrenting

File sharing through torrents doesn’t rely on a central server, but being decentralized doesn’t mean complete anonymity. Torrent files from public tracker websites like PirateBay are unsafe from the prying eyes of ISPs and copyright trolls.

The safest way to maintain anonymity while torrenting is through a VPN or virtual private network. It hides your IP address through its servers and encrypts your traffic making it unrecognizable to your ISP.

Let’s look at some VPNs you can use for safe torrenting in the next section.

👍 Helpful Articles: BitTorrent and uTorrent are the biggest torrent clients today. If you’re curious about using one of them, check out these articles:

Best VPNs for Torrenting

Not all VPNs perform the same. Some VPNs may suit you better, depending on your priorities when torrenting.

We’ve listed the VPNs with the highest speed performance, optimized servers for torrenting, and robust encryption. These VPNs are:

VPN Provider



(💰Price: $3.99 per month)

NordVPN is a reliable VPN that uses 256-bit AES encryption for airtight security. It has a strict no-log policy preventing long-term monitoring from ISPs and copyright trolls. 

It also features a killswitch and optimized servers. Both are important when downloading for long hours. 


(💰Price: $8.32 monthly)

ExpressVPN is known for being fast and secure, with military-grade 256-bit AES encryption, strict no log, and a killswitch. 

All servers are optimized for torrenting. It’s just a bit more pricey than its competitors.


(💰Price: $2.30 per month)

SurfShark is an affordable VPN that guarantees speed and security. It also uses 256-bit AES, a no-log policy, and a killswitch. 

All servers are optimized for P2P connections.

While there are several VPNs that you can get for free, the added perks of a paid VPN service is definitely worth the minimal fee you need to shell out.

The Bottom Line

Torrents are just a means to an end. There are many cases where torrents are used legally, such as distributing public domain media like old books and movies or anything without copyright.

P2P decentralized file sharing is more economical than maintaining centralized servers. Independent creators or even companies often use it to distribute updates.

Whatever torrent use you intend, playing it safe using a trusted VPN is highly recommended.


Is torrenting illegal in California?

Torrenting itself is legal everywhere. What’s illegal is the file sharing of copyrighted content.

Is torrenting a game illegal?

Yes, if the game has a copyright. However, many independent game creators use torrents to distribute their games, which are absolutely legal.

Is it illegal to watch pirated movies in the US?

No, on an individual viewer basis. According to the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020 (PLSA) within the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, “infringing public performances” apply to those who host the streaming of copyrighted material for “commercial advantage and private financial gain.” But this in no way encourages watching pirated streams.


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