Q: How do ‘torrents’ work and why are they illegal? Are there any Web sites that you can download music, videos, movies, and other stuff for free? — Juan

Torrents are just another way to engage in file sharing on the Internet that’s technically more efficient (and complicated) than traditional Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks like KaZaa or LimeWire.

Torrents are actually small control files with the information needed to know where to get a desired file from multiple sources at the same time. With these instructions, it can download chunks of a larger file from multiple users simultaneously (and even out of sequence), and then reassemble the chunks in the proper order on your computer.

This approach is more complicated to set up, but the techie community prefers its speed and elusiveness to other P2P networks. The two stage process pulling from multiple computers makes it nearly impossible to shut down.

Torrents are not illegal, just as guns are not illegal. It’s what’s done with the tool that CAN be illegal. If you use torrents to download copyrighted material such as songs, movies, or software programs, then your actions are illegal — not the use of torrents.

Frankly, the majority of activity in the torrent networks is for illegally downloading copyrighted content: first run movies, pirated software, music from commercial artists, etc.

Torrents can be very useful in moving large quantities of data around many computers across the Internet, but using it to get something for ‘free’ that you would normally have to pay for is when you have crossed the line.

Another concern when downloading files from the torrent networks is contracting various malware from files that are posing as popular content or have hidden Trojans (especially in software program downloads) that can sneak malicious code into your computer while you are running or installing the material.

There are lots of Web sites that offer free downloads that are entirely legal, but you probably won’t want what you can get for free because it won’t be the big name artists, movies, or videos.

If you don’t have to actually download the content, there are lots of ways to listen to and view copyrighted material for free without breaking the law.

Pandora and Last.fm are two very popular sites that allow you to listen to the vast majority of commercial artists and even create your own radio stations based on your tastes.

YouTube has a ‘movie’ channel that allows you to watch free movies — mostly independent films and older commercial movies that weren’t major hits.

A host of other free online media sites have cropped up including Hulu, Veoh, FanCast, and Joost that allow viewing of many popular TV shows as well as music videos and movies (but not any current movies).

These sites monetize the content by using the traditional display ads as well as the commercial insertion method that they require you to watch in order to get to your desired video content. Some TV content actually breaks up the viewing with commercial insertions just like television broadcasts.

The traditional media world is continuing to transition into the digital age, so you will continue to see more and more content become available in either commercial web settings or cheaper pay per view or download services like the very popular iTunes Store.

WARNING: Many Web sites and ads that you encounter in either search results or banner ads will proclaim that you can download movies and music for free. If the content they are offering is first run movies or brand new music that you can freely download, consider it illegal or a scam.

Malicious software programmers know that they can infect people that are not paying attention and this is one of the most common ways to get your computer infected, so be vigilant when searching for free content!

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show