Sharing is Caring

This is a paper I once wrote in a college course that I thought was appropriate here.
Just some information about piracy and the such. Enjoy.

“Sharing is Caring!”, the slogan behind a revolution going almost four decades strong; its kindergarten-like message holds a more dastardly meaning when talking about the act of file-sharing. Once just a niche hobby for only the nerdiest of computer folk, the practice has recently become apart of the daily routine of hundreds of millions of people worldwide, regardless of its legality.

File-sharing has morphed dramatically from its original form. In the early days, systems known as Bulletin Board Systems, or BBS, were used to share files between computers. These systems allowed computer users to log on using a terminal program and perform certain activities, such as uploading and downloading files (TorrentFreak). BBS is believed to be the first widely-used system for sharing files and is largely attributed with the birth of file-sharing. Soon after the creation of BBS, a competitor came on to the scene. It’s name was Usenet, and it effectively laid the foundation for the type of file-sharing we see today.

Up until the creation of Usenet in the late-70s, the online file-sharing was much like its real world counterpart; where there was only one copy of something and only one person could have it. It was closer to a lending somebody a file, than actually copying it. Usenet changed that. Usenet severs were able to receive files and re-distribute them amongst other Usenet users. The system created multiple copies across hundreds of thousands of servers. Usenet built on what BBS had created and made something closer to what we see today.

Although file-sharing started almost two decades before the birth of Napster, it was never more popular than when the service existed. The service, if you haven’t heard of it, allowed for users to download music from almost any artist for free. It debuted in June of 1999. The brain-child of co-founders Shawn Fanning, John Fanning, and Sean Parker, the service brought file-sharing to the masses. With its use of MP3s and user-friendly interface, Napster became a hit; peaking at about 80 million registered users. But almost as quickly as the service gained popularity, it garnered attention from major record labels. In 2000, the American music recording company A&M Records filed suit against Napster claiming that Napster’s users were directly violating the plaintiffs’ copyrights; that Napster was responsible for contributory infringement of the plaintiffs’ copyrights; and that Napster was responsible for vicarious infringement of the plaintiffs’ copyrights. Napster and its founders lost in court and were ordered to keep track of its users’ activities on its network. Napster was not able to comply with the court’s orders and was forced to shut down in July of 2001. A year later, the company announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold its assets to a third party (E Law).

From the ashes of Napster, a new service came to life. BitTorrent took Napster’s place as easy-to-use file-sharing protocol. One of the protocol’s main selling points was that it allowed for less strain on servers that were trying to distribute large files. BitTorrent works by using a special client that communicates with a “tracker” to find other users running BitTorrent that have the finished downloading, seeders, and those with a portion of the file, peers. The client trades pieces of the file that the user wants with the other computers in the swarm, or the seeders and peers. The computer receives multiple pieces of the file simultaneously until you have finished downloading. After the user is done downloading, he/she can continue to seed the file to others that are downloading (Carmack). The protocol was created by Bram Cohen in the early 2000s and was formed by combining older file-sharing protocols. Today, BitTorrent has somewhere around 150 million active users, more users than Netflix and Hulu combined and doubled.

Although protocol and clients brought file-sharing into the hands of the mass public, there still needed to be a place for people to go to search for files. This was when The Pirate Bay came to life. In November 2001, the Swedish anti-copyright organization Piratbyrån. The site was a search engine for torrents (links to files for downloading with BitTorrent clients). The site grew in popularity and soon became one of the most-used sites for file-sharing and piracy on the internet. But with the popularity that the site garnered also earned it attention from federal agencies. In May 2006, the site’s servers were raided by the Swedish government and the site was down for a few days until they moved to foreign servers. Soon after, the founders of the site were charged with perpetuating copyright infringement and after a lengthy 3 year legal battle, the founders were found guilty. They were sentenced to a year in jail and were forced to pay a hefty sum (Pirate Bay). In the years since, the site was been forced to move from country to country as governments continue to raid their servers and shutdown the site. Today, the country is currently using a .sx domain registered in the northeastern Caribbean island of Saint Marten. The site has used the slogan: “The Galaxy’s Most Resilient BitTorrent Tracker” for the past few years.

The way that digital file-sharing works means that copyright law will almost always be involved. Since every file shared is held somewhere; whether it be on a hard drive, CD, in RAM, etc; they all qualify as copyrighted materials. And since the sharing a file usually involves reproducing or distributing, copyright law can eventually catch up to perpetrators of the act. To a copyright lawyer, “every unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public performance requires an explanation, and thus file-sharing systems seem suspicious from the outset,” (Von Lohmann).

There are plenty of legal issues involved in file-sharing. Since it involves so many different types of files, it can lead to many copyright issues. Copyrights shouldn’t be anything new to anyone who has ever read a book, listened to music, or watched a movie. Copyrights apply to most anything. The basic definition would be that the original creator/artist/publisher of the content has some sort right to control the use and reproduction of their original works (Legal). Anytime someone demands that you need to ask for the copyright, you are asking permission to use their content for your own personal use. What happens with file-sharing is that copyright is completely ignored. Content owners lose all control when their content is pirated, they can’t enforce how their content is used or where it can be viewed. This is all without talking about how piracy/file-sharing can impact the profit margins of these companies.

According to the RIAA (Anti-Piracy), or Recording Industry Association of America, in the decade since Napster was born, music sales in the U.S. have dropped 47%, from $14.6 billion to $7.7 billion. Worldwide, the music industry loses somewhere around $12.5 billion, 71,060 jobs, a loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings, and a loss of $422 million in tax revenues every year from file-sharing.

Apart from the problems that plague large conglomerates, file-sharing brings problems many of its users. For the many years, the RIAA prosecuted any and all perpetuators of file-sharing. Until they stopped reporting the number of lawsuits in February 2006, at which point 17,587 lawsuits were filed against individuals accused of piracy. At one point, the RIAA set up a “Clean-Slate” program that would allow any individuals that had pirated content to come forward and delete all their data that had been pirated. Once that had been finished, the individuals would sign an affidavit promising to stop any unauthorized music sharing. In exchange, the RIAA promised not to sue the repentant file-sharer (RIAA). The program was viewed as a way that the RIAA could stop, or slow, their suits against people. Unfortunately, the program was not a success and only a few hundred individuals came forward. Since then, the RIAA has continued to sue pirates. In late-2009, it was reported that the number of lawsuits was somewhere in the area of 30,000. These lawsuits usually settled outside of court and the defendants usually paid between $3,000 and $11,000. Usually, it was just easier to settle outside of court than to hire a lawyer and go through a lengthy trial; that’s if the defendant had an actual defense.

File-sharing has drastically morphed from where it originally began to where it is today. Although many legal issues still follow the practice, there seems to be a less of a stigma with the act of file-sharing then when it first started out. Hopefully one day, the stigma will be completely removed and file-sharing will be completely legal…yeah, like that’ll happen.


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