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In the past decade, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing has been thrust onto center stage. It has become the hub of digital piracy and the target of a livid music industry. Viewed as enemy number one in the eyes of the Recording Industry Association of America and many big name musicians, P2P file sharing has come under legal fire from almost every corner of the music industry. Does it have a place in our cultures future or will it be eradicated by those who wish it so?


First Generation

To understand we must look at the history of P2P file sharing. The life of this technology can be broken into two generations. Each generation evolved to meet the resistance against them. The first generations possessed a centralized server.(Bruno) This centralized server held a list of downloadable material and connected the computers together. If one searched for a certain item, the server would find which peer had the item, direct the searching computer where to download the item and facilitated the download. One of the most famous examples of this server-client programming was Napster.

Napster was created by Shawn Fanning and ran between 1999 and 2001 before being shut down by court order. Napster became the first widely used P2P file sharing software. It changed both the way people used the internet and how they acquired music. The program did not exist for very long before getting the attention of the music industry. The very same year Napster was released, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against the service. It also caught the legal flak of big bands and musicians like Metallica, Dr. Dre, and Madonna before being shut down in July of 2001. Although Napster did not live for very long, it had raked in a peek of 26.4 million users; it was the first sign of things to come. (Cohen)

Second Generation

The second generation solved some of the problems Napster and others faced in the past. The second generation of P2P file sharing services possessed a decentralized network rather than the centralized server of the past that were vulnerable to attacks and lawsuits. Each computer, or node, communicated directly with other computers on the network. The first to be created was a network called Gnutella but it soon crashed from the overwhelming traffic caused by uprooted Napster users. A program named Fast Track soon came onto the scene to correct this problem. Fast Track allowed users to simultaneously download chunks of the same songs from different users. It also had what is called super nodes that were designated computers with high internet speeds and large bandwidths that would handle the flow of data through them.(Cohen) It wasn’t long till every file sharing software possessed this protocol, nor till it found its way into the crosshairs of some big business.

Legal Issues

The same force that crushed Napster now pointed its legal guns at these new devices but the RIAA was in for a shock. Without the centralized server, the software producers pleaded that they did not have any idea what was being shared through their services and on April 25, 2003 their victory streak ended. A California judge ruled that the two P2P services, Grokster and StreamCast could not be held responsible for the illicit trading of copyrighted music and movies over their networks. With this defeat, the RIAA shifted its sites from the downloading programs to the downloaders themselves. (Black)

The RIAA Crusade

The RIAA began its champagne against illegal downloaders in September 2003, blaming the CD sales decline of nearly 200 million over the past three years on it. The music machine set its targets on anyone who had downloaded over one hundred songs. As of April of 2007, the music industry has sued over 18,000 people for copyright infringement. Steve Knopper called these people “bad-luck lottery winners” and in a sense they really are. (Knopper) In the months before the RIAA crusade began, there were 5.5 million estimated users a month of peer-to-peer services. The odds to be one of the 12,000 who were sued are very low but at any odds it is a possibility of being hit with a devastating blow.

The Victims

People of all ages have become the target of the unsympathetic music industry. Brianna Lahara was one of the first to be sued by the RIAA in 2003. She was only twelve years old when she was forced to settle for a $2,000 fine. Michele Scimeca made an attempt to countersue the record labels for bullying her and others for money. To her dismay, the case was dismissed and she was faced with fees that exceeded their annual salary by three times the amount. While the RIAA is legally allowed to sue for upwards of $150,000 per song, the industry tries to settle each case for around $3,000 to $5,000 total instead of going through a long court trial.(Knopper) It may seem a reasonable trade in comparison but it looks more like a scare tactic to me; A tactic to get quick money and move on to their next victim. Those few that choose to fight back are used as examples to rest; being charged utterly life destroying and astronomical amounts of money. While the president of RIAA, Gary Sherman calls this type of enforcement “tough-love form of education” others like attorney Jason Schultz criticizes the plan saying, “If your goal is to intimidate people and get them to freak out and write checks, then, yeah, it's a great strategy."

Pre-Litigation Letters

After five years of random lawsuits, the RIAA has focused its crosshairs on one particular target, college students. In RIAA new crusade, colleges are given the IP addresses of computers accused of illegally sharing music. The college expected to find the student and give them a “pre-litigation letter” to the kid. The RIAA are not even bothering to file lawsuits and instead scaring the students into settling for a $3,000 fine(Knopper). It is unarguable a much smaller amount than the music industry is able to get but when targeting college students with excess of $100,000 in student loans, even $3,000 can be a heavy addition. The RIAA has sent these letters to over 800 students across thirty-five colleges and plan to send hundreds more. The fees the letters acquire are more of a pseudo-fee than actual legal settlements; A statement that avows that “If you pay us now, we won’t sue you later.” However, while most colleges past the letters on two universities refused to do so; the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Maine. As the interim chief information officer of Wisconsin-Madison, Ken Fazier put it, “The letters are a menacing communication . . . They presume the guilt of the recipient.” Also, as Brian Rust, a spokesman for W-M’s IT department points out, “We are not under legal obligation to pass [the letters] along. In fact, if we do, there is concern that we become an enforcement arm of the RIAA.”(Knopper)

The RIAA believe this to be a disservice to the accused students. Jonathan Lamy, the spokesman of RIAA, criticized Wisconsin officials saying, "It's unfortunate that students would lose the opportunity to settle any future claims against them at a substantially discounted sum.”(Knopper) Students, who are not delivered the letters, face the risk of facing the full wrath of the music industry; being sued for the maximum sum for illegally sharing music. The RIAA argues that it would be much better for these students to accept the $3,000 dollar fine than wait till the amount skyrockets in court. The controversy of this tactic is not just its aggressive manner but that these letters circumvent or nations legal system. It seems to me that this is undermining our great nation’s judicial system.


With such overwhelming consequences against illegally downloading music, it seems obvious that quieting would be the normal response. Sherman has said that “[This enforcement] really works. It has made a profound difference…” this is either not true or proof that the public does not care because a year and a half after the RIAA started its legal crusade the numbers of illegal downloaders almost doubled to over 9.3 million users a month as of April 2005. The actual reaction was just the opposite; illegal download has increased nearly 100% sense the RIAA began its campaign. This enforcement is not working and has no reverberating effect on the public. This is echoed among many even those already targeted by the RIAA. A twenty-one year old student who settled for $3,000, Chari Johnson said, "Personally, I don't think it's going to stop anyone from downloading. All my friends know I got sued and how much I got sued for -and they're still downloading music. It's not a reality for them." (Knopper)

Passing the Blame

This has leaded the music industry to accuse others of blame, like the Internet service providers (ISP). Major labels blame ISPs for allowing their users to download copyright-protected materials through their service. At least one major label believes that illegal downloading could be stopped by ISPs as easy as throwing a switch. The theory is that “Once the ISPs get involved in content, once they have a stake in it. They’ll put an end to downloading” as one executive described it. (THE SWITCH) However, the ISPs are not concern with content; they are concern with getting the fastest Internet into homes. Until this shift happens the only thing the music industry can do is demand the compliance of these ISPs, or is it? In Britain the government has threatened to impose legislation against ISPs by April of 2009 if they did not work with the music industry to curtail illegal downloading through their services. (REUTERS)

The Legal Alternatives

Heading in the Right Direction

Listening to the ranting of the RIAA and the popular media the spread of illegal file sharing seems to be of epidemic proportions but in fact has become a manageable outbreak. The introduction of Apples’ iTunes Music Store on April 28, 2003 has given music lovers a legal alternative for online downloading. iTunes’ popularity has skyrocketed since its debut on the music scene, accruing over 400,000 downloads within the first two days. The number of iTunes users have grown and grown sense its unveiling and with it increased the number of overall legal downloading. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, they tripled from a mere 57 million to 180 million downloads due to both a 13% increase of broadband and the efforts to stem illegal downloading. Today, a child’s first download is much more likely to be from pay sites like iTunes or Amazon then the illegal P2P software of past generations.(Bainwol)


Apples’ iTunes may be a great start but we are still a far distance from where we need to be. There are many big musicians that are holding out against the digitalization of music. Just to name a few, the musical libraries of the Beatles, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Tool and Kid Rock all are either missing or incomplete in iTunes catalogs.(Serpick) For this to be fully accepted, our culture needs a change of mind and not only our culture but the music industry itself. With the surge of iTunes into popular culture, the music industry has started to complain about the 3rd party seller; complaining that they are still not getting enough money. Problem is that jacking up the prices will just drive many customers back to piracy all over again. A plan that would only cause all the progress made to crumble.(Dvorak)


It is clear that unless some kind of huge upheaval occurs, we will have to deal with illegal downloading in our society. As long as there is a demand for digital music, illegal file sharing will happen under our noses whether we agree with it or not; the allure of free music can entice even the strongest wills. Just keep the consequences in mind the next time you illegally download music because it could cost a lot more that just .99 cents for that one track.


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