Jump to content

Legal issues with BitTorrent

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Legal notice provided upon an initial startup of the QBittorrent client.

The use of the BitTorrent protocol for the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted content generated a variety of novel legal issues. While the technology and related platforms are legal in many jurisdictions, law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies are attempting to address this avenue of copyright infringement. Notably, the use of BitTorrent in connection with copyrighted material may make the issuers of the BitTorrent file, link or metadata liable as an infringing party under some copyright laws.[1] Similarly, the use of BitTorrent to procure illegal materials could potentially create liability for end users as an accomplice.

BitTorrent files can be seen conceptually as a hyperlink. However, it can also be a very specific instruction for how to obtain content on the internet. BitTorrent may transmit or include illegal or copyrighted content. Court decisions in various jurisdictions have deemed some BitTorrent files illegal.

Complicating the legal analysis are jurisdictional issues that are common when nation states attempt to regulate any activity. BitTorrent files and links can be accessed in different geographic locations and legal jurisdictions. Thus, it is possible to host a BitTorrent file in geographic jurisdictions where it is legal and others where it is illegal. A single link, file or data or download action may be actionable in some places, but not in others. This analysis applies to other sharing technologies and platforms.

Jurisdictional variations[edit]

Legal regimes vary from country to country. BitTorrent metafiles do not store copyrighted data and are ordinarily unobjectionable. Some accused parties argued that BitTorrent trackers are legal even if sharing the copyrighted data in question was a copyright violation.[2] Despite these arguments, there has been tremendous legal pressure, usually on behalf of the MPAA, RIAA and similar organizations around the world, to shut down BitTorrent trackers.

Finland: Finreactor[edit]

In December 2004, Finnish police raided Finreactor, a major BitTorrent site.[3][4] Seven system administrators and four others were ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of euros in damages. The defendants appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Finland, but failed to overturn the verdict.[5] Two other defendants were acquitted because they were underage at the time, but were held liable for legal fees and compensation for illegal distribution ranging up to 60,000 euros. The court set their fine at 10% of the retail price of products distributed.[6]

Hong Kong: individual actions[edit]

On 24 October 2005, BitTorrent user Chan Nai-ming (陳乃明), using the handle 古惑天皇 (The Master of Cunning, although the magistrate referred to him as Big Crook) was convicted of violating copyright by uploading Daredevil, Red Planet and Miss Congeniality to a newsgroup (Chapter 528 of Hong Kong law).[7] The magistrate remarked that Chan's act significantly damaged the interest of copyright holders. He was released on bail for HK$5,000, awaiting a sentencing hearing, though the magistrate himself admitted the difficulty of determining how he should be sentenced due to the lack of precedent. On 7 November 2005 he was sentenced to jail for three months, but was immediately granted bail pending an appeal.[8] The appeal was dismissed by the Court of First Instance on 12 December 2006 and Chan was immediately jailed. On 3 January 2007, he was released pending appeal to the Court of Final Appeal on 9 May 2007.

In 2008 and 2009, an unidentified woman and man were arrested for illegally uploading files with BitTorrent in September 2008 and April 2009, respectively.[9][10]

Singapore: Odex actions against users[edit]

Anime distributor Odex actively took down and sent legal threats against individual BitTorrent users in Singapore beginning in 2007. These Internet users allegedly downloaded fansubbed anime via BitTorrent. Court orders required ISPs to reveal subscribers' personal information. This led to cease-and-desist letters from Odex to users that led to out-of-court settlements for at least S$3,000 (US$2,000) per person. One person who received such a letter was 9 years old.[11][12] These actions were considered controversial by the local anime community and attracted criticism, as they were seen by fans as heavy-handed.[13]

Slovenia: Suprnova[edit]

In December 2004, Suprnova.org, a popular early BitTorrent site, closed purportedly due to the pressure felt by Andre Preston, aka Sloncek, the site's founder and administrator. In December 2005, Sloncek revealed that the Suprnova computer servers had been confiscated by Slovenian authorities.[14]

Sweden: Pirate Bay[edit]

The Pirate Bay torrent website, formed by a Swedish anti-copyright group, is notorious for the "legal threats" section[2] of its website in which letters and replies on the subject of alleged copyright infringements are publicly displayed. On 31 May 2006, their servers in Sweden were raided by Swedish police on allegations by the MPAA of copyright infringement.[15] The site was back online in less than 72 hours, and returned to Sweden, accompanied by public and media backlash against the government's actions.[16] Steal This Film, was made to cover these incidents.[17] On 17 April 2009, as a result of the trial following the raid, the site's four co-founders were sentenced to one year of jail time each and to collectively pay 30 million SEK in damages.[18] All the defendants appealed the decision, although two later served their sentences. In 2012, to minimize legal exposure and save computer resources, The Pirate Bay entirely switched to providing plaintext magnet links instead of traditional torrent files.[19] As the most popular and well-known facilitator of copyright infringement, The Pirate Bay continues to shift between different hosting facilities and domain registrars in the face of legal prosecution and shutdown threats.[20] Telenor was recently forced to ban the DNS of TPB (although other cloud based clones still are available).

United States: 2003–present[edit]

Soon after the closure of Suprnova, civil and criminal legal actions in the United States began to increase.[citation needed]

MPAA cease and desist messages[edit]

In 2003, the Motion Picture Association of America began to send cease and desist messages to BitTorrent sites, leading to the shutdown of Torrentse and Sharelive in July 2003.[21]


In 2005, Edward Webber (known as "lowkee"), webmaster of LokiTorrent, was ordered by a U.S. court to pay a fine and supply the MPAA with server logs (including the IP addresses of visitors).[22] Webber began a fundraising campaign to pay legal fees for actions brought by the MPAA. Webber raised approximately US$45,000 through a PayPal-based donation system. Following the agreement, the MPAA changed the LokiTorrent website to display a message intended to discourage filesharers from downloading illegal content.[22][23]


On 25 May 2005, the popular BitTorrent website EliteTorrents.org was shut down by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ten search warrants relating to members of the website were executed.[24]

Six site administrators pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement and criminal copyright infringement of a pre-commercial release work.[25] Punishments included jail time, house arrest and fines.[26] Jail sentences were issued to some defendants violations of criminal law, the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act.[26][27]


In June 2006, the popular website Newnova.org, a replicate of Suprnova, was closed.[28]


On 29 May 2007, a U.S. federal judge ordered TorrentSpy to begin monitoring its users' activities and to submit logs to MPAA. TorrentSpy ultimately removed access for US visitors rather than operate in an "uncertain legal environment."[29] In the face of destruction of evidence charges and a $111 million legal judgement, TorrentSpy voluntarily shut down and filed for bankruptcy in 2008, although appeals continued through 2009.[30]


On 21 December 2009 a federal district court found the founder of isoHunt guilty of inducing copyright infringement. The ruling was upheld on appeal in Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. v. Fung in March 2013 and the site finally shut down in October 2013.

Copyright holder actions[edit]

Copyright owners have undertaken a variety of tactics and strategies to try to curtail BitTorrent transmittal of their intellectual property. In 2005 HBO began "poisoning" torrents of its show Rome, by providing bad chunks of data to clients.[31] In 2007 HBO sent cease and desist letters to the Internet Service Providers of BitTorrent users. Many users reported receiving letters from their ISP's that threatened to cut off their internet service if the alleged infringement continued.[32] HBO, unlike the RIAA, has not been reported to have filed suit over file sharing as of April 2007.

Beginning in early 2010, the US Copyright Group, acting on behalf of several independent movie makers, has obtained the IP addresses of BitTorrent users illegally downloading specific movies. The group then sued these users, in order to obtain subpoenas forcing ISPs to reveal the users' true identities. The group then sent out settlement offers in the $1,000–$3,000 range. About 16,200 lawsuits were filed between March and September 2010.[33]

In 2011, United States courts began determining the legality of suits brought against hundreds or thousands of BitTorrent users. Nearly simultaneously, a suit against 5,000 IP addresses was dismissed.[34] A smaller suit, Pacific Century International, Ltd. v. Does against 100 IPs, has also been dismissed.[citation needed]

In October 2011, John Wiley and Sons brought suit against 27 New York "John Does" for illegally copying books from the For Dummies series.[35] According to TorrentFreak, Wiley is thus "the first book publisher to take this kind of action".[36]


On 23 November 2005, the Motion Picture Association of America and Bram Cohen, the CEO of BitTorrent Inc., signed a deal to remove links to illegal content on the official BitTorrent website.

Other notable search engines also voluntarily self-censored licensed content from their results, or became "content distribution"-only search engines. Mininova, announced that it would only allow freely licensed content (especially free content distributed by its author under a Creative Commons license) to be indexed after November 2009, resulting in the immediate removal of a majority of Mininova's search.

Infringement's sales impact[edit]

Some commentators have suggested that copyright violation through BitTorrent need not mean a loss of sales.

The actual story is probably a bit more nuanced. There’s plenty to suggest, for instance, that HBO doesn’t necessarily lose business when someone pirates "Game of Thrones" -- in all likelihood, that person would never subscribe to the network, anyway.

— Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post[37]

In addition, the Game of Thrones director, HBO programming president and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes spoke about the positive effects of file sharing.[37][38]

"If you go around the world, I think you're right, that 'Game of Thrones' is the most pirated show in the world," he said. "Now that's better than an Emmy."

Bewkes further commented that he did not consider the unauthorized distribution to result in the loss of HBO subscriptions, rather: "Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs and more health for HBO."[38] The show is the most infringed TV show, and "the show's first season was the best-selling TV DVD of 2012.[37]

Patent infringement[edit]

In June 2011, Tranz-Send Broadcasting Network filed a U.S. District Court lawsuit against BitTorrent Inc. for infringing a patent applied for in April 1999.[40][41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note, 40 Colum. J.L. & Soc. Probs. 1 (2006–2007) Secondary Liability for Copyright Infringement: BitTorrent as a Vehicle for Establishing a New Copyright Definition for Staple Articles of Commerce; Helton, Matthew Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Heinonline.org. Retrieved on 11 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Legal threats". The Pirate Bay. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009. Retrieved 9 May 2006.
  3. ^ Cullen, Drew (14 December 2004). "Finnish police raid BitTorrent site". The Register. Archived from the original on 28 April 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2006.
  4. ^ "Police swoop closes down Finland's largest file download site". Helsingin Sanomat. 16 December 2004. Archived from the original on 20 April 2006. Retrieved 9 May 2006.
  5. ^ "Finreactor to pay extensive compensation for piracy". Helsinki Times. 30 June 2010. Archived from the original on 3 July 2010. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
  6. ^ "Underage Finnish BitTorrent admins fined $60,000 each". TorrentFreak. 26 October 2006. Archived from the original on 8 November 2006. Retrieved 8 November 2006.
  7. ^ "Peer-to-peer infringer convicted". Hong Kong Information Services Department. 24 October 2005. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  8. ^ Bradsher, Keith (7 November 2005). "In Hong Kong, a Jail Sentence for Online File-Sharing". New York Times. Archived from the original on 13 November 2007. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  9. ^ "HK Man Arrested for Sharing Films with BitTorrent". Xinhua/CriEnglish.com. 29 April 2009. Archived from the original on 14 June 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2009.
  10. ^ 分段上載電影 侵權無業漢被拘 (in Chinese). Mingpao/Sina. 29 April 2009. Archived from the original on 7 July 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2009.
  11. ^ "Parents get shock letter Archived 30 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine", Liew Hanqing, The New Paper, 2 August 2007
  12. ^ Kicking kids for profit? Archived 5 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Michael Tan, CNet Asia, 16 August 2007
  13. ^ Anime firm boss gets online death threats Archived 23 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Chua Hian Hou, The Straits Times, 16 August 2007, p. 4
  14. ^ "Supernova.org: Two Years Since the Shutdown". TorrentFreak. 19 December 2006. Archived from the original on 31 May 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  15. ^ "The Piratebay is Down: Raided by the Swedish Police". TorrentFreak. 31 May 2006. Archived from the original on 16 April 2014. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  16. ^ "Piratebay Back Up". TorrentFreak. 3 June 2006. Archived from the original on 12 May 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  17. ^ Steal This Film (Stockholm, Summer 2006) Archived 17 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine website. Retrieved 22 April 2007.
  18. ^ Kiss, Jemima (17 April 2009). "The Pirate Bay Trial: Guilty Verdict". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 25 October 2019. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  19. ^ Van Der Sar, Ernesto (12 January 2012). "The Pirate Bay Will Stop Serving Torrents". Torrent Freak. Archived from the original on 15 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  20. ^ Van Der Sar, Ernesto (9 August 2013). "The Pirate Bay Turns Ten Years Old: The History". Torrent Freak. Archived from the original on 9 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  21. ^ Röttgers, Janko (26 July 2003). "Bittorrent-Webseiten unter Druck" [Bittorrent websites under pressure] (in German). heise online. Archived from the original on 16 October 2019. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  22. ^ a b Borland, John (10 February 2005). "Court: Hollywood gets P2P giant's server logs". CNET News.com. Archived from the original on 3 September 2006. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  23. ^ "LokiTorrent Shut Down". Slashdot.org. 11 February 2005. Archived from the original on 5 February 2022. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  24. ^ Poulsen, Kevin (26 May 2005). "U.S. Jacks Torrent Site". Wired News. Archived from the original on 9 June 2008. Retrieved 21 April 2007.
  25. ^ "6th EliteTorrents Star-Wars Pre-Release Guilty Plea". TorrentFreak. 2 May 2007. Archived from the original on 7 May 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2007.
  26. ^ a b "Dramatic BitTorrent Site Shutdowns of the Decade". TorrentFreak. 31 December 2009. Archived from the original on 26 September 2010. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
  27. ^ EliteTorrents Admin gets 18 month sentence Archived 1 June 2013 at the Wayback Machine. Afterdawn.com (10 September 2008). Retrieved on 11 May 2013.
  28. ^ Van Der Sar, Ernesto (20 June 2006). "Bye Newnova (update: welcome back!)". Torrent Freak. Archived from the original on 9 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  29. ^ Ernesto, Van Der Sar (27 August 2007). "TorrentSpy Blocks Searches From US Visitors". Torrent Freak. Archived from the original on 1 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  30. ^ Sandoval, Greg (4 February 2009). "TorrentSpy renews legal campaign against MPAA". CNET. Archived from the original on 8 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  31. ^ Torkington, Nat (4 October 2005). "HBO Attacking BitTorrent". O'Reilly.com. Archived from the original on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2007.
  32. ^ Henderson, Maryanne (21 March 2006). "Safenet (for HBO) Letter to Charter Communications - Part 2.jpg". Tallinn Wordpress. Archived from the original on 5 January 2007. Retrieved 22 April 2007.
  33. ^ "Bomb threat as US Copyright Group sues 2,000 more file-swappers". Ars Technica. 1 October 2010. Archived from the original on 3 January 2012. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
  34. ^ "Judge Decimates BitTorrent Lawsuit With Common Sense Ruling". Torrent Freak. 9 July 2011. Archived from the original on 19 October 2011. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  35. ^ Milliot, Jim. (1 November 2011) Wiley Goes After Bit Torrent Pirates Archived 15 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Publishersweekly.com. Retrieved on 11 May 2013.
  36. ^ Major Book Publisher Files Mass-BitTorrent Lawsuit Archived 20 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. TorrentFreak (31 October 2011). Retrieved on 11 May 2013.
  37. ^ a b c Dewey, Caitlin (9 August 2013). "'Game of Thrones' exec says piracy is 'better than an Emmy.' He has a point". The Switch. The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 8 May 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  38. ^ a b Adi, Robertson (8 August 2013). "High 'Game of Thrones' piracy is 'better than an Emmy,' says Time Warner CEO". The Verge. Vox Media. Archived from the original on 18 June 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2015.
  39. ^ Kravets, David (16 June 2015). "Game of Thrones season finale breaks BitTorrent swarm record". ars technica. Condé Nast. Archived from the original on 3 December 2017. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
  40. ^ Redmond, Scott D. "Media file distribution with adaptive transmission protocols" U.S. patent 7,301,944, Issue date: 27 November 2007.
  41. ^ Ernesto. "μTorrent/BitTorrent Sued For Patent Infringement Archived 20 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine". TorrentFreak, 19 June 2011. Accessed 20 June 2011.

External links[edit]

  • Czerniawski, Michal (December 2009). "Responsibility of BitTorrent Search Engines for Copyright Infringements". SSRN 1540913.