P2P File Sharing: What Is it? Is it Legal?

Downloading message on a computer screen
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The term P2P (or PtP) is short for Peer-to-Peer. It is used to describe a method of sharing files between many users over the Internet. Perhaps one of the most infamous P2P networks ever to have existed on the Internet was the original Napster file sharing service. Millions of users were able to download (and share) MP3s for free before the service was shut down due to copyright infringement.

The thing to remember about P2P is that a file (such as an MP3 or video clip) isn't just downloaded to your computer. The data you have downloaded is also uploaded to all the other users who want the same file.

How Are Files Shared in a P2P Network?

The design of a P2P network is sometimes referred to as a decentralized communication model. This simply means that there isn’t a central server involved for distributing files. All computers in the network act as both server and client -- hence the term peer. The big advantage of a decentralized P2P network is file availability. If one peer disconnects from the network there are other computers that will have the same data available to share.

Files aren't distributed in one chunk either in a P2P network. They are split into small fragments which is a much better way to share files between peers. Files can be several Gigabytes in some cases, so randomly distributing small chunks between computers on the network helps to efficiently distribute it.

Once you have all the pieces, they are combined together to form the original file.

Is P2P the Same as BitTorrent?

If you've heard of BitTorrent, then you might think that it means the same thing as P2P. However, there is a difference. Whereas P2P describes the way in which files are shared, BitTorrent is actually a protocol (a set of networking rules).

How Do I Access Shared Files via P2P?

In order to access shared files on a P2P network, you need to have the right software. This is usually called BitTorrent software and allows you to connect to other users. You also need to know the BitTorrent websites to visit in order to find files you are interested in.

In digital music, the type of audio files that are typically shared via P2P include:

  • Songs and albums
  • Audiobooks
  • Music videos
  • Live music recordings (from concerts, etc.)
  • Music software and apps

Is it Legal to Use P2P for Downloading Music?

P2P file sharing on its own isn't an illegal activity. As you've discovered so far in this article, it is merely a technology that allows many users to share the same files.

However, the question of whether it is legal to download music (or anything else) is all to do with copyright. Is the song you are about to download (and ultimately share) protected by copyright?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of copyrighted music files on BitTorrent sites. However, if you are looking to stay on the right side of the law, there are legal P2P networks to download music from. These often have music that is either in the public domain or covered by the Creative Commons license.