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Peer-to-peer File Sharing

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There has been a lot of interest in the media about peer-to-peer services and file sharing, but what exactly is peer-to-peer?

Put simply, peer-to-peer is the free sharing of information, usually files, over a common network, such as the Internet. The principle behind it is that each user on the network (peer) can connect to any other user's computer and share files with them. In true peer-to-peer networks, all computers are equal, there are no servers and no overall control (except that which the program itself provides). True peer-to-peer networks are rare.

Peer-to-peer dates back to the origins of the Internet, when only a dozen computers were connected to the ARPAnet network connecting a few universities together. There was little or no security and any user connected to the network could view any other user's files, by connecting to their computer directly.

Early Attempts

Early attempts at peer-to-peer networks included Napster1, Audiogalaxy and Gnutella. Napster suffered the fatal flaw that by using a central server to pass the files through, it became vulnerable to a legal attack started by rock group Metallica, which eventually closed the service down. Napster did put up a fight, saying that it could not regulate what users shared and that a lot of the file-sharing was legitimate and legal. This was defeated in court by an argument that Napster could easily screen what passes through it. For more information about Napster's downfall and resurrection, see The Rise and Fall of Napster or

Gnutella's flaw was that it used a series of ports on a computer's Internet connection which were reasonably easy to block. It could not adapt automatically, and was also (although some will argue otherwise) difficult to use. Later programs used adaptive port control, by choosing a free port at random.

Modern Services

Newer peer-to-peer services, such as Kazaa and Morpheus, have been built to avoid those mistakes. They do not have a central server. Each user connects directly with other users. Some users with fast computers and fast (usually DSL or better) Internet connections can elect to act as supernodes, which act to regulate the network and facilitate searches.

Note: Kazaa and Morpheus are technically the same service. There is also KazaaLite, which is like Kazaa without spyware and adverts. It is not fully compatible with Kazaa and can cause some problems.

Another program growing in popularity is BitTorrent. It allows multiple people to download the same data at the same time. It is mainly used for downloading video, like the latest episode of The West Wing. It is unique in that it allows multiple users to exchange the same information. As user A downloads something, user B is taking it from him, who in turn is providing it to user C, and so on. It's rather like the pyramid of champagne glasses being filled at a wedding.

Peer-to-peer is actually an excellent method of promoting new and upcoming bands. A few songs available for download will give users a taste of the music available. This method can even be used to gain the attention of a record label.


There are many rumours and half truths about peer-to-peer.

Peer-to-peer is Illegal

This just isn't true. Sharing of copyrighted material without permission is illegal, because the author of the material (writer, song artist, film distributor, etc) has not given permission for the material to be distributed. However, peer-to-peer services are legal. Many companies use them internally for file sharing.

Peer-to-peer is Stealing from the Music Industry

This is contentious. Although from a legal perspective, there is no excuse for copying music online, most peer-to-peer advocates say from a moral perspective, there is no excuse for charging £17.99 for an album with 11 songs, only three of which you will ever listen to2.

The music industry, particularly the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), has been arguing for several years that online music sharing is stealing business and putting jobs at risk. Their main evidence is the decline in CD sales (mainly in the Western hemisphere) with a simultaneous (but not necessarily corresponding) increase in online music sharing.

There is, however, emerging evidence that the music industry, especially the RIAA has been, at best confused about its maths, and at worst misleading with its statistics3. The RIAA's main case against peer-to-peer has been a decline in CD sales, which coincided with a growth in online file sharing. However, recently-revealed figures show alarming irregularities in the data collected and analysed.

Music Format Sales, 2002

  • CD albums - down 6%
  • Singles - down 16%
  • Cassettes - down 36%
  • VHS - down 42%
  • DVD - up 58%

Source: IFPI

Now ask yourself, which of the items listed above is new technology (ie has novelty value)?

Main Music Markets Sales, 2002

  • Argentina - down 23%
  • Mexico - down 19%
  • Spain - down 16%
  • US - down 10%
  • Japan - down 9%
  • Germany - down 9%
  • UK - down 3%
  • France - up 4%
  • Brazil - up 4%
  • Source: IFPI

    Market analysts indicate the decline could also be explained by other reasons:

    • Fewer CDs are being released.

    • The majority of fans have finished replacing their vinyl albums with CDs.

    So, to recap, the decline in CD sales may be due to the fact that record industries are signing fewer bands and artists, or that the entire boom of CD sales in the 1990s was caused by people replacing their vinyl albums with CDs, or a combination of both.

    The first explanation is especially intriguing, and here's why: the RIAA said that CD sales were down because of a global downturn in the economy, made worse by illegal sharing. However, it is possible that the reduction in sales was caused because the worldwide economy slowdown caused the labels to sign fewer artists, which meant that fewer new albums and singles were released - hence fewer sales.

    Another explanation that the data suggests is that people are buying fewer CDs because they are building and expanding their DVD collections. The truth is probably a mixture of all three plus other influences. An apt anecdote is that there are three kinds of untruths; lies, damn lies and statistics.

    Also check out Music Sharing and Its Impact on the Industry.


    Much work has been done by various organisations and individuals to try to stop or slow down peer-to-peer services. Mostly this manifests itself in attempts to prevent music being copied from CDs onto a computer or prevent the peer networks from working.

    Record Industry

    The Record Industry has been infamously suing everyone even remotely connected with peer-to-peer, mostly to little success.

    The industry has been behaving very oddly in respect to this problem, asking fans to buy more CDs to support their artists, and at the same time calling all fans/customers 'thieves'.

    Copy-protected CDs have been made famous by the media, usually because they don't work. Systems like Cactus are designed to prevent the music tracks being 'ripped' to MP3 or another compressed file format, which can be shared on a peer-to-peer network. Unfortunately, most protection systems prevent the CD from playing on some regular CD players, while allowing most computers to play it. In addition, since the CD player in your computer is legal, you are perfectly entitled to a non-protected version of the disc if you ask for it.

    Perhaps the most famous copy-protected CD was the Spiderman soundtrack album. It had music from the film, plus a computer data section that allowed access to a website with behind the scenes material. Only computers with the CD would be able to gain access to the website. The music tracks were protected from being copied but, for obvious reasons, the computer data track was not. As a result the music part of the CD would not play in most CD players but the entire CD would play in a computer, including the music.

    Phillips, the creators of the compact disc and holders of the CD logo, are so incensed by the protected CD fiasco, that they were considering withdrawing permission to use the CD logo from protected discs from companies such as Sony, TriStar and Universal. In effect, this would prevent them referring to their music discs as CDs.


    Madonna is most famous for fighting illegal file-sharing of copyrighted music. After most of her album Music was distributed online weeks before it was released, she took no chances after that. Her latest song, 'American Life', was found on MP3 sites and peer-to-peer services before it was released, so her distributor flooded these services with a track that appears to be the full song, but is in fact Madonna saying 'What the f..k do you think you are doing?'. Eminem has also taken similar action on his new tracks.

    Network Administration

    Large companies are particularly worried about being fined or sued for breach of copyright law. The Easyinternet cafe chain had to pay £80,000 to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). The company had earlier been found guilty of copyright infringement for allowing customers to download music from the Internet and onto CDs.

    Companies with large computer networks and fast Internet connections are also being targeted. Individual network administrators are having to find ways to block peer-to-peer systems from their employees, although in many cases the risks of being taken to court are outweighed by the amount of bandwidth (or speed) that is being wasted on non-business Internet use.

    Internet Service Provider (ISP)

    Many ISPs have come under fire, particularly from the record industry, about the use of peer-to-peer services. The RIAA has threatened to sue any ISP that allows illegal file-sharing. Most ISPs say it is not their responsibility to monitor what their customers use the Internet for. A landmark high court case against the company Demon Internet showed this was wrong, but many believe that the legal attack on Demon was based on how likely Demon was to fight back. Being a relatively small company, they lacked the resources to fight a case effectively. Attempts on larger ISPs have failed. They can afford more lawyers, presumably.

    BT Openworld was criticised by the RIAA and its British equivalent, the BPI, for not taking action to stop peer-to-peer services. BT replied that peer-to-peer wasn't illegal. Other ISPs, such as ntl, have limited the download on their broadband services to 1 Gigabyte per day. This has proven highly unpopular with their customers, who accuse them of radically changing the conditions of service without notification.

    US Congress

    At the time of writing, the US congress is considering a draft bill that would give copyright holders permission to gain access to networks. If the bill becomes law, copyright holders would have the right to disable, interfere with, block, or otherwise impair a peer-to-peer node4 that they suspect is distributing their intellectual property without permission. The copyright holder would need to show just cause that copyright infringement was or could be occurring on the node in question.

    The bill, P2P Piracy Prevention Bill, has met strong opposition as user group voice their fears that it could be used for any number of illegal activities such as industrial sabotage. Criticism of the bill falls into two arguments:

    • Nowhere does it specify what kind of technological attacks would be permissible.

    • Nor does it provide sufficient recourse if a computer is unreasonably targeted.

    It also raises another problem, namely: What if the node is trading illegally in copyrighted material at the same time as trading legally in non-copyrighted material? Would the copyrighter block part or all of the node's access?

    Cries of 'vigilantism' and 'legalised hacking' have been heard. One of the more interesting points raised has been: What would happen if this was used to gain access to a computer outside the US? Legal experts suggest that this could generate trespass, criminal damage, or even illegal computer access (hacking) charges against the copyright holder.

    Problems with Peer-to-peer


    The main problem with sharing copyrighted material in a peer-to-peer environment (or anywhere else for that matter) is that it is illegal. Most users feel secure because their own usage is so small that it isn't worth the effort or money to prosecute them individually. Generally speaking this is true, only the networks themselves or users that are downloading music, putting it on CDs and selling it en masse are targeted.

    However that doesn't get around the fact that sharing copyrighted material without permission is illegal.


    The software used to run the peer-to-peer service (ie the program that runs on the users' computers) is almost never written by professional software companies. As such it can be buggy, crash the computer or do strange things to the computer (commonly referred to as 'screwball'). It should be pointed out however that the majority of users will probably experience errors no more severe than with any other piece of software.


    Peer-to-peer services pay for themselves mainly through advertising. Most of this is done in frames within the software, but many supplement this with pop-up adverts. As many also require an email address to register, spam can often be forthcoming. Selling email addresses is highly profitable.

    For more information see: How To Fight Spam - you could also search for 'pop-up stoppers' on a search engine. These can knock out about 85% of all pop-ups.


    Digital Rights Management

    Digital rights management (DRM) is one of the main selling points of the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows XP. It works by creating a 'digital signature' on every file that is copyrighted. The signature is based on the machine-specific signature that was created when XP was installed, which is based on the hardware currently in the computer.

    The problem is this makes the entire technology unworkable if you are a roaming user on a network, who may be using a different computer every day. In addition there is the problem that if the machine breaks, all your signed files then become inaccessible. The same can also happen if you upgrade your computer, by adding another hard drive for example.

    Opponents of DRM argue that there is the equivalent of the 'Scunthorpe problem' within DRM. With content access managing software (like NetNanny for example) you have the problem that if the pattern matcher isn't good enough, it spots a rude word in the middle of a perfectly valid one (ie Scunthorpe). Imagine the Scunthorpe problem happening to you when you are just putting the finishing touches to that novel you spent years writing. Suddenly the only copy becomes unviewable, all due to badly-written software.

    Even if the software works as advertised, then there is still the problem of the potential abuse of the technology for censorship of dissenting views.

    Record Industry

    Many record companies (Sony, Universal, etc) have launched their own (independent) online music stores where users can pay to download entire albums or individual tracks. Pricing is around $2 per track, so an album costs about the same as if bought on CD. Some downloaded music is unlimited playback, while others restrict the number of times it can be played (this has been referred to as 'renting' music).

    These sites have had their teething problems, but their main obstacle is persuading users to pay for legal music, when the user can get it free elsewhere.

    All of these services have security to prevent the downloaded files being shared.

    Peer-to-peer Services

    A few peer-to-peer services have started to introduce legitimate supplements to their services. Kazaa, while still operating under a free peer-to-peer service, have started introducing a pay-to-play service on certain copyrighted audio and video files. They are free to download, but without a payment (usually in the $1.99 - $3.99 range) through a secure online credit card system, the file will not play. Napster has also tried to relaunch itself as a strictly legitimate service. A monthly fee gives the user a certain number of downloads. However, many people believe that Napster has 'sold out' and this has damaged its credibility. In addition, many users may not return to Napster after being out of action for years, as they have already found alternative services.



    There are those within and outside of the music industry that accuse it of complacency in adapting to online file distribution. Some even go as far as to accuse it of gross negligence.

    The 'winds of change,' as some refer to them, were blowing for a long time. It was obvious to anyone who cared to look what direction music was heading in. The most scathing criticism has come from the industry heads themselves. The distributors were far too ready to close down any illegal file site, but weren't prepared to offer a legitimate version of their own.

    Free vs Pay-Per-Use

    Some music distributors have now set up online music for download, either through a pay-per-use, or a monthly fee with in-built limits (ie £15 a month = 30 downloads, £30 a month = 100 downloads etc). These systems are well built, but, many argue, too late on the market. No-one is going to pay for legal music if they can download it for free.

    The online platforms have problems too. There were technical glitches that knocked hundreds of users offline, Sony's system that accidentally charged customers twice for each file, and some systems not being capable of coping with failed downloads (ie ones that crash out at 95% downloaded).

    One of the main problems is that each distributor keeps only their own artists on their system, so to download the latest song from your favourite artist you have to know who they are signed with.

    Here To Stay

    Whatever stance you take, either for or against peer-to-peer services, they are here to stay. There are currently no viable alternatives on the market. Technology consultants believe that eventually music downloads will be included as part of your ISP service.

    The freedom to share is an integral part of the Internet - some would say it is the founding principle.

    1Not strictly peer-to-peer as it used a central server to route traffic.2CD albums are well known to have a 1000% mark up on price. Despite this, two independent reviews on CD prices in the UK reported that the price was not unreasonable.3Several leading statisticians and economists have expressed concern that the RIAA is being very secretive about where it draws its statistical data from and how it calculates its figures.4An individual computer, not the network as a whole.

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