Dorris ’15: The truth about torrents

Opinions Columnist

What if there was a way to get all of your textbooks for free? How much would you save? $500? $600? $700, even?

Try googling “torrent” and the name of your textbook.

I am talking about BitTorrent networks: online tools that enable users to stream material from many different sources at once. These days, torrenting is the pita and hummus of collegiate file sharing, a reliable — and mostly illegal — way to access software, movies, music and yes, textbooks.

We all have seen the commercials. Piracy is often compared to stealing a television or car. But the reason these digital products are so easy to take, other than the fact that the Internet allows easier distribution, is that BitTorrent creates the illusion of innocence because no single user is uploading or downloading entire files. It eliminates the free rider problem by combining the two processes.

Torrenting may be like stealing a car — if that car was stolen piece by piece from many different sources. But if the car I wanted could only be accessed illegally, I would probably be guilty of grand theft auto.

Look at it this way. Some textbooks are not available digitally, so students scan them into PDF format and then share the files with friends. Similarly, if I cannot find a book on Kindle I need for class, I feel justified in downloading one of these files rather than scanning the 1000 pages on my own. There is no way to reasonably compensate the publisher who is not meeting the demands of the market.

Likewise, many television shows and movies are plagued with complicated legal issues that prevent them from being published on Amazon, Netflix or Hulu — the biggest suppliers of legal online television. Sometimes the only way to access them online is through file sharing methods like BitTorrent.

But file sharing is a dangerous game. Some companies are known to put trackers into torrent networks and then report illegal activity to the federal government. Copyright holders try to make examples out of a few individuals. In the past, college students have been sued for millions of dollars and some have faced criminal penalties. A handful of files even contain malicious viruses.

Things get even stickier when we look at Brown’s own policy. BitTorrent completely violates the University’s Acceptable Use Policy and is relatively easy to recognize and track through IP addresses. If you are caught once, you receive a warning. If you are caught multiple times, you are thrown off the network or your account gets blocked. In that case, you had better like the new blonde roast at Starbucks, because that is where you will be spending your days.

But despite its rigid copyright infringement policy, the University sure is not helping students find other options. It is no secret there are significant problems on the supply side. The newest textbooks cost hundreds of dollars each. Yet classes almost always order the most recent editions that usually contain only a few extra pages. In other words, Brown, like most universities, works with publishers to force students to dole out as much cash as possible.

Brown does offer some services — outlandishly expensive software like Final Cut Pro is available on Brown computers and the library also has online editions of certain books.

Other than that, you can take The Herald’s editorial page board’s suggestions — share with a soon-to-be-resentful friend, borrow a book “long-term” from the library or purchase international editions — all of which sound somewhat traumatizing.

Brown does a paltry job of providing students with attractive alternatives to BitTorrent. We need a wider variety of programs on Brown computers and additional discounts for necessary software. We also need a greater selection of e-books, especially because the current system only allows partial downloads of up to 60 pages at a time.

Until then, many students will be motivated to dig out their parrots and strap on their historically inaccurate eye patches. Anything to save some doubloons.

But if you are going to pirate, you need to do it right. It is not worth being banned from the network. If you absolutely must download something, do it at Starbucks or through other public Wi-Fi.

And how do you know if something is pirated? Here is the rule of thumb: If you neither watch an advertisement nor pay for the product, it is definitely illegal. If you do get caught, immediately delete everything on your computer that might be illegally obtained, no matter where you downloaded it from.

But more likely — what if you do not get caught?

Beyond legal implications and Brown’s policy, remember you are stealing someone else’s work. If you want people to keep developing things, you need to pay into the system. But it is a complex issue. If suppliers are not catering to the market and there is no other way to access a product, then I believe torrenting can be justified. Just remember: You are being watched.


Cara Dorris ’15 can be reached at


  1. Technically, eye patches aren’t historically inaccurate. Pirates would wear a patch over one of their (still intact) eyes so they could switch over when they went below deck and already be acclimated to the dark.

  2. One method which I’ve found to be quite effective is to buy used and sell used. Sites like (run by ebay) and amazon sell books at much more reasonable prices. Then, after the semester’s over, you can usually resell the textbooks for equal, if not higher, price (I’ve actually made a profit in previous semesters).

  3. One other thing to note is that pirated PDFs of textbooks are becoming harder and harder to find these days. I have a friend (who shall remain nameless) who’s something of a connoisseur of pirated textbooks, and he’s given up on finding all but the most popular textbooks online.

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