File Sharing

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File sharing is the ability to transmit or “share” files from one computer to another over the Internet.
A simple diagram to demonstrate the core definition of filesharing.
Such files may include software, music, videos, images, documents, and books. There are two main types of file sharing. One is peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P). In P2P file sharing, clients utilize software to search for shared files on the computers of other users and download their chosen files directly from other people on the network. An alternative to peer-to-peer software is called file hosting service. These services are offered by sites that host files and allow users to download them directly through links. An example of a current file hosting service is MediaFire. This site is most commonly known for its ability to let users search for song titles and download them from the links that the site provides. Obvious ethical implications for filesharing including the sharing of copyrighted files between users over the internet. Other controversial topics include using filesharing for personal use, including as a method of backup up one's copyrighted media or a way to transfer that same media from one computer to another when both are owned by the same person. Filesharing has become one of the biggest ethical debates surrounding the internet today.
The popularity and ease of file sharing has taken a somewhat comedic turn as of late.


The history of file sharing dates back to 1971 when the eight inch floppy diskette was invented by IBM. [1] It rapidly won its acceptance as a useful data storage medium. Floppy disks allowed users to transfer files from one drive to another. In 1990, the World Wide Web (WWW) was officially proposed. The WWW provided users with easy access to file sharing. Within the next year, the MP3 standard is introduced.[2] This was the turning point which ultimately lead to Digital Piracy.

The first MP3 player was released in 1997 and it was called the MPMan F10. A year later the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and was used as a weapon of piracy destruction and was greatly used in many legal actions against file sharing services[3].

In 1999 Shawn Fanning created Napster. Napster is an online music sharing software. A user could download songs from other users that had previously purchased CD’s, hence making them available to other users on Napster. Napster's method of sharing music directly violated copyright law. Just two years after Napster was created, the music industry organized a copyright infringement suit against them. Napster was immediately shut down in 2001. That same year, BitTorrent and LimeWire were released. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer communications protocol for file sharing. The most famous site is The Pirate Bay (TPB) which was released in 2003. TPB allows users to share electronic files. As of 2011, it has over 5 million registered users and hosts more than 3.5 million torrent files.[4]

LimeWire is a free peer-to-peer file sharing software program. In 2010, LimeWire was forced shut down by recording companies, but the network still remains available in open source clients like Frostwire. In March of 2011, thirteen recording companies are attempting to sue LimeWire for $75 trillion. [5]

The fear of enormous fines is a very effective means to deter potential illegal downloads.


Although file sharing is not illegal, it has been the subject of many recent lawsuits. Currently, there are many artists that support open source file sharing and see it as a way to cheaply promote their music. Also, it's important to realize that file hosting services do not actively monitor the content being transferred by users. So, although the site itself is legal, the files (or music) being uploaded on the site may not be. The Pirate Bay, a poplar source of files for P2P sharing, has received many legal threats from within and outside of Sweden, the country in which it is based, and they are well known for their sometimes humorous responses. They post all of these threats with their responses on their website[6].

Collaboration and Search Engines

Links to files available from file hosts are often posted on Internet collaboration tools such as email, message boards, blogs and other mediums through which these links can be gathered. Such mediums just offer links to such files instead of actually hosting files themselves. Many of these sites are hosted on offshore servers that reside outside of US jurisdiction. Most of these sites have a clause in their Terms of Service that pass on responsibility to the users.

There are also search engines, like Filestube that search various file hosts for content. They are almost exclusively used for finding illegal content. Like stated previously, Filestube passes on responsibility to its users in the following provision of its TOS:

Note that FilesTube has no way to determine which files have a copyright and which do not. FilesTube does not nor will ever store any files on its own servers. Users should use their own judgment when downloading files from other internet servers which could possibly infringe upon any copyright. Please note that content such as mp3/wma music files, mp4/mpg/avi video or movie downloads, ebooks, games or software might be protected by copyrights and legally cannot be downloaded. FilesTube cannot determine which links refer to the copyrighted materials and which do not, so this is left to discretion of the User.[7]

Ethical Implications

Many people consider file sharing an ethical issue. Some believe that it isn't theft. Theft would involve depriving someone of property. The ethical issue is whether or not file sharing causes companies to lose sales, reducing their profits. There are an estimated 700 million copyright-infringed music files on the Internet.[8] File Sharing was not created for this purpose. Not all file sharing is illegal, there are many forms of legal sharing of free/open source software, games, music, books, or other forms of media. Due to the fact that file sharing is used for everything from illegal downloading to sharing collaborative documents, or even a local artist gaining popularity for his music through free downloads, ethical arguments appear on both sides of the spectrum. Some are in favor and some are against file sharing. It is interesting to note that in 2009, fifty-eight percent of Americans who follow the file sharing debate said that in a few cases, file sharing is appropriate. In this study, within the group of 18-29 year olds, seventy-percent of respondents favored file sharing [9].


Proponents of file sharing have two main arguments. The first being that file sharing actually increases the sale of music. As users can sample more music, they are more likely to purchase that music at a later date because they had the opportunity to listen to it beforehand. The second point coincides with the first stating that people who download from peer-to-peer (P2P) sites would not have purchased the music in the first place.[10] Other proponents argue that since music is more widespread and easy to acquire, it helps in promoting it across various pathways. It allows for a storm platform of advertising that only file sharing is capable of doing. Despite the unethical nature of downloading music illegally, many people partake in it because of the faceless nature of it. Since people can download music anonymously in the comfort of their own home, they are more inclined to do so and rationalize their actions accordingly. Even though most people know downloading music is unethical, they do it nonetheless because of this false rationalization.


Those against file sharing argue such things as intellectual property, theft, copyrights, and the downfall of the music industry. That is, when someone downloads a CD, they are stealing property from the artist.[11] Downloading music illegally is potentially allowing thousands of other people to download the music from you. Therefore, downloading music online can potentially lead to millions of dollars of lost revenue for the recording company. Others argue that sharing music for free hurts smaller up and coming artists the most; these artists do not generate as much revenue from music sales, and do not have as many other outlets for bringing in revenue as millionaire artists. The greatest reason against downloading or sharing music is piracy, or “the unauthorized use or reproduction of another’s work."[12] Since most of the music that is shared is copyrighted, downloading, distributing, or sharing it violates intellectual property rights.[13]

Other Facts to Consider

The number of users of P2P websites has decreased dramatically in the past few years. Market research firm NPD group said that P2P use has dropped from 16 percent of all US Internet users to 9 percent over the last three years.[14] Attributed to the fall of the major players in the file sharing industry, there is less of space for Internet users to find and download material. This could only add to a debate where file sharing users could say the problem is decreasing. This could also be due to the recent emergence of new companies such as Pandora and Spotify. Their use of ads and having music available is legal, so users feel comfortable using their product. Also, they have large libraries of music so that users don't have to actually search for their music and illegally download it.

Government intervention

Recently, the government has been cracking down on violations of intellectual property rights. Corporations and lobbyists have succeeded in extending intellectual property rights, and new laws have also been created to prevent the violation of these rights.[15]


Perhaps the most high profile case of the government's intervention within the file sharing world, the shutting down of Megaupload came as a surprise to many. In light of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, federal prosecutors aided in the arrests of four people who they deemed responsible for the website. Megaupload was accused of costing its copyright holders roughly $500 million in lost revenue due to illegally uploaded content on its servers. [16]

Copyright Alert System

A number of large internet Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have agreed to be a part of a program developed by the Center for Copyright Information called the Copyright Alert System.[17] The program involves a "six-strikes" system, which could result in reduced internet speeds or internet bans for users who have made too many infringements. In the program, the ISP is monitoring internet usage, not the Center for Copyright Information, so the nature and severity of punishment may vary between ISPs. Additionally, some ISPs have chosen not to participate in the program. The planned start of the program was some time in November 2012, but is now forecast to begin some time at the start of 2013.[18]

See Also


  1. Computer History Museum. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  2. Timeline of file sharing. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  3. Nistor, Codrut. File Sharing – History. PCTips3000. 2009-06-34. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  4. The Pirate Bay. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  5. Plafke, James. LimeWire is Being Sued for Up to $75 Trillion, Judge Thinks It’s “Absurd”. Geekosystem. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  6. Legal threats against The Pirate Bay. The Pirate Bay. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  7. FilesTube Terms. 2011-05-09. Retrieved 2011-12-13.
  8. Plowman, Sacha, and Sigi Goode. “Factors Affecting the Intention to Download Music: Quality Perceptions and Downloading Intensity.” Control 49.2004 (2009) : 84-97.
  9. Cosgrove-Mather, Bootie. Poll: Young Say File Sharing OK. CBSNews. 2009-02-11. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  10. Norbert, Michel. Internet File Sharing: The Evidence So Far and What It Means for the Future. The Heritage Foundation. 2011-08-23. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  11. File Sharing FAQ. Belmont University. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  12. Piracy. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  13. Shang, R., Chen, Y., & Chen, P. (2008). Ethical decisions about sharing music files in the p2p environment. Journal of Business Ethics, 80, 349-365.
  14. Anderson, Nate. Only 9% (and falling) of US Internet users are P2P pirates. '"ARS Technica. 2011-03-23. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  15. Stahl, B. C. (2008). Ethical issues of information and business. In K. Himma & H. Tavani (Eds.), The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (pp. 311-330). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  16. Megaupload finished: Feds shut down file-sharing gian without SOPA 2012-01-20. Retrieved 2012-12-08.
  17. Kravets, David. "Copyright Scofflaws Beware: ISPs to Begin Monitoring Illicit File Sharing." Wired. Conde Nast, 08 Oct. 2012.
  18. Martinez, Jennifer."Roll-out of Copyright Alert System Delayed." TheHill. N.p., 03 Feb. 2016.

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