Are torrent downloads legal in the UK?

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My teenage son downloads music, movies and games using a 'torrent' program. Could he be breaking the law? I've read horror stories about parents being forced to pay huge fines for their children's copyright infringement online...

Karen, Manchester

Torrenting is in the news a lot, usually attached to a horror story about someone getting fined a bajillion pounds for downloading some music or movies that way. Well, there's a reason for that: it isn't the most legal method of getting digital media.

What is torrenting?

Put simply, torrenting is a form of file sharing. It requires the use of a special torrenting program - such as BitTorrent - to download movies, TV shows, games, music, programs, and all kinds of other things by splitting the file with other users.

Here's the gist of how it works. A file is split into small chunks of data which don't mean anything on their own. Each user - or 'peer' - who wants the file has a different chunk. They download it, then share it with the rest of the peers who don't have it yet, and download all the other data chunks from those peers too. When you've downloaded them all and put them together, a complete file is formed.

Well, it's a grey area. Sharing a file or piece of media without the copyright holder's consent is absolutely illegal - but the argument is that with torrenting, you're only ever sharing a small, completely meaningless string of data, so technically you're not doing anything wrong. Technically.

But generally speaking, we absolutely advise against torrent downloads. It requires stepping onto some very sticky legal ground - you're sharing an unlicensed, copyrighted piece of media. Which is illegal.

That means you can still get in some quite serious legal trouble, like a lot of people have done in the past. Besides, it's not fair on the copyright holders and the people who are relying on royalties from their media to pay the bills.

Plus, there are plenty of ways of watching TV, streaming films, and listening to music on the cheap that are 100% legal…

Alternatives to torrenting

Film and TV

  • Free catch-up services. We're talking BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand 5, STV Player, UKTV On Demand - all have a host of shows to catch up on whenever you want, totally free, and probably in HD as well.
  • Subscription streaming sites. Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Now TV, Curzon Home Cinema, PictureBox, CinemaNow, MUBI… there's plenty of choice here, so it's just a case of sussing out which one fits your taste best. Take a look at our guides to TV streaming and film streaming sites for more info.
  • Subscribed to a pay TV service like Sky or Virgin Media? Make the most of everything included in it. Sky Go, Virgin Movies, TiVo, YouView+, on-demand box sets, and apps all add up, so you might be missing out on loads of telly - including downloadable films and TV episodes.
  • Get a TV package, or upgrade the one you've got. For only a few pounds per month - less than a Netflix subscription, in some cases - you could get more channels and all the on-demand content that comes with them. It may even be a case of just upgrading your set top box to one that can record TV. Compare TV packages here.

Music

  • Music streaming services. A heck of a lot of music is available to listen to for free, though you may have to put up with some ads - try Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube, or radio apps like TuneIn. But otherwise, a subscription to a site or app like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Prime Music, or Tidal shouldn't break the bank. Most allow downloading too.

Remember that streaming online uses a lot of data - you'll want a speedy internet connection with unlimited downloads.

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