File Sharing vs. Online Streaming: What’s the Diff?

Do you download music, movies, or books online? If so, are you doing it legally?

There’s a huge difference between file sharing (also known as torrenting) and general online streaming. Copyright violations have serious civil and criminal penalties; thus, it’s important we understand these differences in order to avoid copyright infringement issues.

File Sharing:

File sharing, or torrenting, is a way to share large files (torrents) over a network (1). Torrent clients (such as BitTorrent and uTorrent) allow you to search for content, and download parts of a file from a variety of different users with that file already on their computer. When sharing certain information, such as freeware applications and software, torrenting can be completely legal. However, torrenting IS illegal when users download and share copyrighted material (such as music, movies, and books) – which is the most common form of torrenting.

Online Streaming:

Streaming involves accessing content stored on another device and watching in real-time via a continuous stream of data. Streaming is how popular sites like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify and Pandora operate. Streaming is completely legal, as no files are being physically downloaded to your device. Keep in mind, there can still be instances where streaming can get you in trouble. For instance, a Google search can bring you streaming results with links to unsafe content (generally phishing attacks), saying your Flash player must be updated or have offers to click on links – which is a gateway to malware and viruses.

Stay safe (and legal!):

You could be unknowingly sharing files and personal information! Peer-to-peer file sharing software will often install spyware on your machine. This type of malware collects information about your browsing habits and history as well as personal information (i.e. credit card numbers), and often uses the internet to pass this information along to third parties without you knowing (2).

If copyrighted information is found on your computer without a license or other permission, it is considered theft by copyright holders/federal courts, and you could face a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) charge. This could result in large civil and criminal penalties as well as the suspension of your access to the MU network! If you think you have any file sharing programs installed on your computer, uninstall them as soon as possible. Remove any copyrighted materials unlawfully obtained from any device on which it is stored, and stop illegal downloading of copyright materials immediately.

Use legal streaming alternatives like Hulu, Netflix, Apple Music, Spotify and the many other options found at: Lastly, keep your devices password protected and NEVER share your log in information! You are ultimately the one responsible for what happens on your personal devices! Visit the Division of Information Technology website at, for more information about MU’s DMCA policies.


1. IDG (2017). “What is the difference between torrenting and streaming?” Retrieved from:

2. Avast. (2017). “What is spyware?” Retrieved from:

Last updated: August 23, 2017