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What is Torrenting and How Does it Work?

This beginner's guide will introduce you to torrenting and show you how to safely and legally download your first torrent file

what is torrenting

If you’re a millennial, you’ve probably heard of torrents before. They were king of the internet back when platforms like LimeWire were in everyone’s browser history.

However, they’ve fallen into obscurity a little bit since pirates have become synonymous with them, and some people have come to see them as malware dumps that are dangerous.

While you do need to use common sense while torrenting, there are plenty of positive, safe, and legal uses for it. In this guide, we’ll go over what torrenting is, how you can do it, and how you can stay on the safe side of the law while protecting your devices.

Note: Torrenting is perfectly legal. However, it’s illegal to download copyrighted files and materials. So if the file you’re downloading is copyrighted, then you’re breaking the laws and you’re on your own when it comes to dealing with the consequences.

Here’s everything you’ll learn about in this guide. Click the links below to jump ahead or continue to scroll through to learn everything there is to know about torrents.

What are Torrents?

A comparison of a server-based network vs a P2P network. Herby Jasmin/Gotechtor

A torrent is any file shared among users via a peer-to-peer network rather than a direct download link.

This allows for large files to be shared without putting strain on servers, and it puts the power of data distribution, and the availability of data, in the hands of users instead of one centralized provider.

A torrent file (file extension “.torrent”) contains information about the file being shared, and what tracker (more on that below) is associated with it.

Due to their peer-to-peer nature, torrents can be used for perfectly legal, positive purposes, or they can be used for illegal purposes when copyrighted material is involved. We’ll touch more on that later in this guide.

Torrenting Vs Direct Download

When you go to a website, find a file you need to download such as Google Chrome, and hit the download link, that’s a direct download. You’re downloading the necessary file package directly from a single server to your computer.

This is effective for reasonably sized files that aren’t in high demand. However, it can put a lot of stress on servers, and even cause them to crash if too many people are trying to directly download large files from them at the same time.

A torrent solves that problem by decentralizing the process and allowing users to share their files across a network. Multiple users, known as seeds, upload their files to the network, and when a user, or leech, downloads their files, bits are taken from each seed.

This reduces the amount of stress put on the people supplying the data, and it allows people downloading the data to reduce the time they spend waiting for a large download to complete.

How Torrenting Works

how torrenting works illustration
Torrenting P2P Downloading Process Illustration. Herby Jasmin/Gotechtor

Torrenting is a bit more complex than simply using a direct download link. For a direct download link, you only have to worry about whether or not the data provider has kept the content available on their server, how fast your internet connection is, and your own computer’s ability to store the file.

Since a torrent is downloaded in a peer-to-peer format, multiple users with the same large file have to make the file available from their own computer systems.

These are called “seed”, and they essentially function similarly to how a server works. The data from each seed’s file is then broken into chunks and sent to whoever is currently trying to download the file for themselves.

Since multiple people are supplying the data required for the download, different bits will be picked from each seed’s file, and the data will create one complete copy of the group’s file once the download is completed.

This is how torrenting allows for large files to be downloaded by large groups of people at once. It divides the strain between multiple providers instead of a single server.

To keep track of what data is being pulled from where, how many people are currently seeding the data, and how many people are currently leeching the data, a torrenting client is used.

A torrenting client such as BitTorrent functions as a hub to connect everyone involved and facilitate the entire process. Without a client, a torrent can’t be used.

Understanding Common Torrent Terms

When you first open a torrent client and start downloading files, you’re going to be exposed to some new terms that probably won’t make a lot of sense at first.

To help you get a head start and understand what you’re doing, we’ve compiled a list of the most common torrenting terms and defined them in the simplest way possible.

Client

A client is the application you use to access and operate on the torrent network. It’s a hub for a torrent’s data to pass from seeds to leechs with ease, and you can’t torrent files without one.

However, the client itself doesn’t contain any files for download. You’ll still have to go to a torrenting website to find a file listing. Your client just allows you to download it once you find it.

Seed

“Seed” is a fancy term for uploader. A seed is someone who possesses the file you’re attempting to download, and they’ve willingly made that file available for people like you.

With enough experience and a little know-how, you can help seed files, too. Typically, there will be groups of seeds uploading a single file package. A solo seed can provide a file, but the download will usually take quite some time.

It’s important to note that a torrent client will typically begin using leeches as seeds to help alleviate the stress being put on seeds.

Leech

A “leech” is the exact opposite of a seed. If you’re downloading a torrent, you’re a leech. If there are more leeches downloading a file than there are seeds to upload, a download can take much longer to complete.

This is because the data is being picked and distributed to more users than the seeds can handle on their own. Typically, a client will begin to seed information once enough of a file has been downloaded in order to alleviate this stress and help spread out the strain among users.

Tracker

A “tracker” is what tells the information being transferred where to go. It has the IP address information for every device being used to seed, and it passes that information along to leech devices. A tracker site is simply a site listing.

Swarm

A “swarm” is simply the group of seeds and leeches uploading and downloading the same torrent. For example, if there are 150 seeds and 50 leeches providing the data for a Linux distribution, those seeds and leeches would be called a “swarm”.

Peer

A “peer” is an instance of a torrent client. For example, if you have BitTorrent open and are using it to torrent, you, or your client to be more specific, would be considered a peer. Someone using BitTorrent in Taiwan at the same time would count as another peer, and so on and so forth.

How to Download Torrents

Downloading torrents may not be as easy as simply going to your average website and clicking “download”, but it’s not an overly difficult process, either.

In this section, we’re going to take you through each step in-depth to make the process easy and steer you towards the smoothest experience.

Step 1: Choosing a Client

qBittorent Downloading Page. Herby Jasmin/Gotechtor

As we said earlier, you can’t torrent without a client. There is a vast array of torrent clients available, and they range from free-to-download to premium clients with a monthly fee.

Both of these variants have their own pros and cons, and some are better than others. The most popular ones such as BitTorrent and uTorrent are a good place to start your search.

As a rule of thumb, always research a client before installing it. Some have third-party adware included, and some can flat-out install malware on your computer. The torrenting community is well-developed, so trust reviews to guide you towards the right one for you.

Step 2: Install a Tracker Site

A tracker site functions as a sort of directory. You’ll find a large list of files for download, usually separated by file type and category.

You’ll be able to initiate downloads for anything on the site. However, none of the data is actually on the site. It’s simply a listing.

There are two types of tracker sites that you can use:

Public Tracker

A public tracker site is easy to find with a simple Google search, and anyone can use it. This will most likely be what you end up using at first, and it might be the only type of tracker site you need depending on what you’re doing.

Private Tracker

A private tracker site functions exactly the same as a public site technologically, but it’s like a private club. You have to be invited to use the site, and there are typically rules to its use such as always seeding after leeching.

For obvious reasons, it’s unlikely that you’ll need a private tracker site unless you’re part of a company that uses torrents to share data or part of another group that wants to maintain a certain level of privacy while conducting its activity.

Step 3: Search

Now, you have to search for content to download. This works similarly to any other sort of data repository. Most torrent sites have a search option that lets you quickly search for keywords, and your search will bring up a list of relevant files for download. Once you’ve found a file you like, you can move on to the next step.

Screenshot: GIMP

For the purpose of this guide, we’ll be downloading the free image editor known as GIMP from gimp.org. GIMP is a free, open-source software that can be legally torrented.

When searching for files to download, it’s important to look at the ratio of seeds to leeches. If there is a large number of leeches, but only a handful of seeds, your download can take an exorbitantly long time to complete due to the heavy traffic. In contrast, a file with a large number of seeds can usually be downloaded fairly quickly.

Step 4: Download

Now, you just have to download the file. The vast majority of torrents will tell you exactly what the file contains, and you can use that information to determine whether or not the contents are compatible with your software or worth your time.

When you go to download multiple files, you should try to download one at a time. Trying to download multiple files at once, without any sort of prioritization, can take a long time to complete. Usually, it’s even longer than it would take if you just downloaded each file individually.

You can also gain a huge benefit from using a premium, paid client in this step. Torrenting is typically safe if you’re downloading legitimate, legal files.

However, it’s still a peer-to-peer service, and you don’t know exactly who you’re getting data from. A premium client will typically have security features built in to help you avoid malware and other issues.

It’s recommended to use a torrenting VPN to safely and legally download torrent files to protect your data. If you’ve unintentionally torrented copyrighted materials, you can have peace of mind that the illegal download will not be tracked back to you. For more information about VPN uses, see Benefits to Start Using a VPN.

Is Torrent Illegal?

There’s a common misconception that torrents are shady, dangerous parts of the internet that are only used by cyber criminals and content pirates. This is only partially true, and it’s completely up to the user to determine whether or not their activity falls into the stereotype that plagues torrenting.

On their own, torrents and clients are perfectly legal to use. There aren’t any laws that forbid the use of peer-to-peer file sharing. In fact, the United States government uses torrents to distribute larger public files to citizens when direct downloads simply aren’t practical, and companies like Facebook use them to share information internally.

Torrenting and Copyright Infringement

Torrenting becomes illegal when you’re using the concept to download copyrighted material without paying for it, or to transfer information that would be illegal to transfer in any other format.

For example, you can legally use a torrent client to download the latest open-source Linux distribution as much as you want.

However, if you use torrenting to download the latest and greatest block buster film instead of paying to see it like everyone else, you’re pirating, and that’s highly illegal.

Can you go to jail for torrenting?

Pirates utilize torrenting every day, but if a pirate is caught, they can face up to five years in prison, $150,000 in fines for each piece of content stolen.

Additionally, they can face an indefinite amount of fines if the copyright owner decides to press charges and sue for court and legal fees.

At the end of the day, that $12 movie ticket you could have legally purchased can easily turn into a fee worth a small fortune, and a large chunk of your freedom.

As for how safe torrenting is, that is dependent on whether or not the seed is distributing hidden malware, spyware, or viruses, and whether or not you have the protection necessary to catch those before they infect your device.

A premium client, proper virus and malware protection, and a little caution can make torrenting as safe as downloading in any other format.

Should You Torrent?

After learning all this, you might be wondering if you should dive into the world of torrenting. In our opinion, you should go for it. It’s an entirely different side of the internet that opens a lot of different opportunities to you.

However, it’s up to you to decide if your experience is positive, fun, and safe, or illegal, dangerous, and overall negative.

With a little common sense and honesty, torrenting could be your new favorite way to transfer files across the internet.

Please use the comment section below for any questions, suggestions, or concerns.