What You Need to Know About Torrents: A Beginner's Guide

An illustration of someone using torrents on laptop to download music and movies from the web.

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Torrent files are files under the umbrella of an extremely popular peer to peer file distribution system called BitTorrent. BitTorrent is commonly used for transferring large files within a large network of people with extremely fast download speeds.

The Origins of Torrent Technology

BitTorrent technology was originally developed by Bram Cohen, who came up with the protocols needed to share very large files quickly with a large group of people no matter where they were located. This revolutionary technology that made it possible to compress large files and share them with many different people, very quickly. This simple software program is free, with literally millions of users from all over the world utilizing it to upload and download anything from audio books to full-length, first-run movies.

Sharing large files can be quite a tedious affair: downloading a movie file, for example, can take several hours. Cohen envisioned a system by which many users in a network could each hold a piece of a large file, sharing the load and making the process quicker and more efficient. BitTorrent technology was first unveiled at CodeCon in 2002, and people soon realized that it could be used for swapping not only open source software, but movies, music, and other kinds of multimedia files.

This is also known as peer to peer sharing (P2P). A peer to peer network is a computer network that relies on the strength and computing power of many servers and computers, rather than one centralized computer or server. This makes it easier for the computers, or "peers", to both upload and download files efficiently and quickly, since the load is shared by all.

How Sharing Torrent Files Really Works

As files are downloaded/uploaded, the BitTorrent protocol puts what users download on tap for other users to upload. When multiple users are downloading the same file at the same time, they are actually uploading pieces of that file to each other, simultaneously. BitTorrent takes each piece of the file users download and plugs that piece into gaps that other users haven't downloaded yet. Instead of one file being downloaded from one source in a linear fashion, BitTorrent takes the approach of "many hands make light work", effectively utilizing the power of the crowd to deliver large files quickly and efficiently.

Software Needed to Download Torrents

Yes, you do! In order to download torrents, you have to have a torrent client. A torrent client is a simple software program that manages your torrent downloads and uploads. You can find the best torrent clients on the Web by reading this article titled How to Find Torrent Clients.

Where to Find and Download Torrents

Here are a few places on the Web where you can find torrent files:

  • Torrent Sites: There are thousands of BitTorrent sites on the Web, but not all are safe, easy to use, or reputable. Find out where the good BitTorrent sites are. NOTE: Torrent sites tend to change rapidly. Be mindful when visiting these sites of legal restrictions in your local area, and use common sense accordingly. 
  • Find a Torrent Search Engine: BitTorrent search engines are able to scour the Web for torrent files in a wide variety of places, making it simple for you to find what you're looking for. Again, a disclaimer: not all torrent files are legal, and while searching for torrent files is completely fine, downloading copyrighted material can land the user in legal trouble. If in doubt, back out. 

Official Legal Disclaimer for Torrent Files

As noted throughout this article, the technology behind torrents, BitTorrents, and this kind of sharing between peers worldwide is completely legal. However, there are copyrights on many of the files shared on the torrent networks, and most countries have prohibitions against downloading this material.

You need to know that while searching for torrents and P2P sharing technology is legal, that many of the files that you will come across on the Web are actually copyrighted. Copyright law in the United States and other countries (excluding Canada) puts these torrent files and downloading these torrent files at risk for legal action, including lawsuits. Make sure you are familiar with your local copyright laws before downloading any files, and be mindful of common sense privacy practices while online in order to avoid any possible legal ramifications.