Downloading Music MP3s: Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

(It's legally grey at best)

P2P file downloading
P2P file downloading is controversial. Photolibrary / Getty

Sharing music online: some musicians hate it, some musicians love it. It's barely legal in the USA. It has been largely unenforced in Canada. And millions of people do it every day, regardless.

It's called "Peer-to-Peer Sharing" (P2P)

It's based on the cooperative sharing of thousands of individual users. P2P works by having participants voluntarily install special file-sharing software on their machines. Once that P2P software is in place, these users start to trade music MP3 and AVI files of their favorite songs and movies. The sharing works by each user sharing little bits at a time. No charge, no's almost as easy as doing a Google search.

This file trading, called "uploading and downloading", is the core of the P2P online community Although the files are commonly large (from 5 megabytes to 5 gigabytes), P2P software can make your bandwidth connection achieve amazing speeds. For millions of people, it is possible to download an entire music CD in under an hour, and an entire movie in under 3 hours.

The Controversy Over P2P

The great controversy is over copyright and money: that music and movie artists claim that they are not paid rightfully when users share files without the artists' express permission

In Canada, court arguments have been made that it is half-legal...Canadians can download music, but not upload it, and the CRIA authorities should not be necessarily allowed to view the names of ISP users who P2P. In other parts of the world like the USA, the UK, Australia, and Europe, file sharers will get sued in class-action lawsuits, often for tens of thousands of dollars. In a couple of intimidation cases, the governments of Australia and Britain actually charged some file sharers in crown prosecutions. Yet despite these frightening law court actions, millions of people still trade files every day.

Napster and The History of P2P

Napster Inc. was created in May of 1999 by Shawn Fanning (PC Magazine Technical Excellence Award winner Person of the Year 2000) and Sean Parker, co-founder. A centralized service for sharing of millions of music titles, this P2P network of “real-time” file trading also incorporated chat rooms with “instant messaging” and a “hotlist” function and was even featured on Download Spotlight of the prominent

Napster was so successful, over 70 million users joined its community. Even more amazing: an estimated 85% of all college students in the world were part of that group, and they managed to download 2.79 billion songs! This mass downloading also attracted the attention of mega-artists Metallica and Dr. Dre. These two artists vehemently opposed the free trading of their music.

In December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) launched a lawsuit against Napster Inc., charging it with tributary copyright infringement (i.e., contributing to and facilitating other people's copyright infringement).

  • Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for RIAA, summarized Napster’s activity as: ”facilitating piracy, and trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners”.
  • Metallica and Dr. Dre also launched individual lawsuits against Napster for a three-fold attack on its operations.

In February 2001, a judge ruled that Napster had to stop the distribution of copyright material through its network. Record companies provided the list of over 250,000 song titles for the immediate removal of the Napster’s network. In July 2001, a judge told Napster it must block all files infringing copyright, effectively forcing it to shut down. Napster folded in September 2002, after its unsuccessful sale to Bertelsmann AG.

Napster has been reborn in a milder and tamer way as "Napster 2.0", which is now a division of Roxio, Inc. Napster 2.0 has cultivated extensive content arrangements with the major record labels. As long as you are willing to pay a user fee of $10 USD per month, you can legally download over 500,000 songs from all genres of music at Napster 2.0. Unfortunately, Napster 2.0 is only available to residents of the United States, and no longer enjoys the immense following of its 1999-2002 days.

P2P Today

These entities have managed to elude legal prosecution to this point: BitTorrents, Limewire, Gnutella, OpenNap, KaZaA, Morpheus, WinMX, and FastTrack. These P2P communities are under constant threat of civil lawsuits, but millions of users still use their services every day.