I've known about torrents for a little while now -- maybe a year or two -- but I've only recently had the time to see how exactly they work. I had tried previously on a Mac and had about zero success getting the software to work properly (which is really strange given that A. it's a Mac, and B. I'm generally extremely savvy with Macs) but I wasn't overly concerned about it, and didn't have THAT strong of a desire at the time. So I left it alone.
I recently began -- for a variety of reasons -- working more regularly on a PC. Coupled with some additional free time, I've been playing around with BitTorrent and seeing what I could do. For those who don't know, it's basically a process by which you can download and upload files with other people online. I won't get into the specifics of it, but you're effectively downloading parts of the same file from different individuals' computers. So if one person turns his PC off, then you can pick up the next part of the file from someone else. It's an interesting system, to be sure.
My first downloads were some "mandatory" comic readings that weren't already on my bookshelf: Crisis on Infinite Earths, V for Vendetta and Blankets. One was just in PDF form while the other two required me to download and install some additional software to view them properly. The downloads went very smoothly, running in the background while I did other things. Once they were complete, it was a simple matter to burn the files to a CD and port them around to wherever I wanted. And in the meantime, since my computer still has those files on it, I'm effectively sharing those very same documents with anyone else who tries downloading them.
Which beg the questions: is this legal and is this ethical?
Well, it will probably be considered illegal in much the same way that Napster was. Torrenting hasn't, to my knowledge, come up in our justice system at all yet. Prosecution will be, I think, more difficult as well, since there's really no one big player. Heck, you can't even say one guy is doing a majority of the file sharing since the nature of the set-up itself means that everybody's sharing with everybody else. In the meantime, though, I'm sure it'll be considered a grey area until someone decides to file suit over the whole deal. (Of course, I don't know who they'll sue...)
Ethically speaking, I'm not entirely sure where this falls. I'm not paying for any services... the files are free and the software is free. The issue is more one of whether the trademark and copyright holders have a right to be paid someone sharing their files with me. Back in the day, people did in fact share their comics. One kid would buy Superman and another would buy Batman and they'd both get to read each book. Four reading experiences for the price of two. This is similar in that one person bought and read the book, and then is sharing it with someone else. Who shares it with someone else. Who shares it with someone else. The obvious problem with this scenario is that, if enough people share the books instead of buying them, the company doesn't make enough money to pay for producing them in the first place. It's similar to the tragedy of the commons -- if everyone doesn't play by the same rules, everyone ultimately gets shafted.
So, can I justify downloading files that I haven't paid for?
I think I can safely say "yes" for a few reasons. First, I have given thousands of dollars over the years to Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Archie, Oni, Slave Labor, Alias, Quality, and just about every other reasonably sized publisher out there, past and present. I will continue to spend money every week on new comics. Plus, the books I'll download will be ones I wasn't likely to spend money on anyway. There are simply too many other comics I'd be more willing to pay to read before I get to those. In that sense, no one is losing any money by my actions.
Finally, I'm a complete cynic. I've gotten screwed by "the man" (metaphorically speaking, of course; I'm not talking about Stan Lee himself) enough times and ways that I try to take advantage of every faceless corporation I can. I'm not going to commit grand theft or anything, but if I borrow a laptop from work and they never happen to ask about it every again, there's a good chance that it won't make it back to the office. Call it what you like, but I'm tired of being the nice guy who always finishes last. This world has made me way the hell too cynical to not try to take advantage of it from time to time.
So, do I have any problems with downloading whole graphic novels over the Internet without paying for them? Take a guess.