Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
Article by Rick Leinecker, November 6, 2006

You can get just about every song or video free of charge if you know how. And what could be better? Just find what you want, download it, and burn a CD that you can listen to in your car. Or burn a DVD with your favorite movie. Here's the caveat: safety and following the law are more important to me than my ability to get free stuff. You see, it's not legal to download music that has a copyright. And what's worse, the downloaded files can contain viruses that may corrupt your computer.

File sharing has been going on since the days of Computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). If you could convince the System Operator (SysOp) of the BBS that you weren't going to rat them out, you could get access to the files that were available for download. And many of these files were software protected by copyrights and patents.

When people get software, music, video, and other protected files without paying, it affects the producers. In fact, it's another form of stealing. Many software publishers have been severely hurt by software pirates, and some have gone out of business as a direct result. Many recording artists have seen their profits significantly diluted. In addition, getting protected files without paying hurts innovation.

The Internet brought it to another level. Now, millions of people from all over the world can download files. This further dilutes the publishers' ability to make money, and further degrades the incentive to innovate. The more effective the delivery method, the more harm done to the economy when people get and freely use computer files that are protected.

Enter Napster in the early days. This was the first real software that put everyone in line to get as much free music as they could handle. It wasn't long before Napster was shut down in its original form because of the legalities. But that model for distribution was so compelling; a new generation of file sharing was spawned that's known as peer-to-peer file sharing.

The legal mistake that Napster made was to store the content on their own server. But peer-to-peer sharing works differently. It transfers the files directly between the millions of users who are connected. All the server does is to act as a conduit for the search process. The server aggregates the file names that are available along with their location so that when a search is conducted, the results are readily available. This overcomes the legal hurdle that brought down the original Napster.

By the way, Napster is now in complete legal compliance. They decided to join forces with the music industry and act as a purchase mechanism for music files.

Examples of peer-to-peer sharing programs include Grokster, Morpheus, Kazaa, and eMule (although there are dozens that are available). They can be downloaded free of charge from many Internet web sites. Even though there is no charge for the software, there is an economic incentive for the software creators. Unbeknownst to users who eagerly install the software; SpyWare, Trojans, and other undesirable programs come along for the ride. Once the peer-to-peer software has been installed, you will have more than you bargained for with the extra software.

Peer-to-peer software can clog up your Internet connection. Not only does it go out and get files for you, but the other part of the deal is that others come in and get files that are in the software's sharing directory. The extra traffic can really gum up your Internet connection.

I've also found that much of the peer-to-peer software is poorly written and has bugs. This can cause your computer to crash and exhibit other strange behavior.

The biggest danger when you share files is that there is no guarantee that the files you get are safe. They can potentially have viruses and harmful code. So the price you pay for the free files might be far greater than you ever thought.

I recommend staying away from peer-to-peer file sharing. It's illegal and there can be some significant consequences.

That's the scoop on peer-to-peer file sharing for now.