November 22, 2010, 11:47 AM — Comcast wants to kill it, your next wireless router will probably have it built-in, and you can use it to download the entire GeoCities archive. BitTorrent has come a long way since its public release on July 2, 2001, but unless you're a regular media pirate, you probably haven't used it much. Read on to find out how it works and to clear up a few common misconceptions about it.
Is BitTorrent Legal?
No court has found the BitTorrent protocol inherently unlawful. But using BitTorrent to trade copyright-protected files will likely put you on the wrong side of the law. A Princeton study published earlier this year estimated that only 1% of the files in a sample pool of 1021 files shared on BitTorrent were legal, so it's no wonder that many people assume that BitTorrent itself is illegal. To ensure that your downloads stay on the right side of the law, stick to trackers that are dedicated to sharing free content, such as ClearBits and LegitTorrents.info.
Though using BitTorrent is legal, several Internet service providers try to monitor users' traffic and clamp down on their BitTorrent usage. This is called "traffic shaping," and it can be highly inconvenient for torrent downloaders. Read "Elude Your ISP's BitTorrent Blockade" for more information.
How Does BitTorrent Work?
Normally, if you want to download a file from a Web site, you just click a few links in your Web browser and your system will start saving the file to your default Downloads folder. The server hosting the file sends you the file, bit by bit, until you have the whole thing.
Bandwidth isn't free, however, so transferring the file costs someone money . The more popular a file is, the more servers and bandwidth the hosts will need to continue distributing it. That's why so many downloads sites are saturated by obnoxious ads--the sites need to pay their bandwidth bills. As the world swaps larger and larger files, such as high-definition videos, high-resolution photos, and higher-quality music, the bandwidth bill grows and grows.