File sharing is the act of circulating, facilitating or bestowing
access to computer files on the Internet. File sharing does not
refer to a specific technique or technology for sharing files, but
is an umbrella term which encompasses a range of methods. File sharing
has remained dependent upon the technology of it's day: when the
Internet was blooming in the 1980's, the location (address) of files
would be published on Usenet or bulletin boards. Due to the download/upload
speed of Internet access, users would typically share pictures or
text files. The launch of peer-to-peer programs (1999) popularised
the sharing of audio files, and typically copyrighted audio files.
While file sharing is a perfectly legal act - when permission
of the owner of the material is granted - it is often used to share
copyrighted material without the permission of the owner of the
material. Therefore, file sharing has brought about a negative reaction
from some music artists (Metallica and Dr. Dre were the first artists
to issue lawsuits against peer-to-peer networks) and record labels.
File sharing is still (2014) one of the most popular uses of the
Internet, and although economic studies have highlighted it's impact
upon music and movies sales, the music and movie industries have
been unsuccessful in curtailing the activity of sharing copyrighted
Files have been shared on the Internet (TCP/IP networks) since
the 1970's; using network protocols like FTP (file sharing protocol).
However, no standalone application was developed to specifically
allow users to exchange files until the 1990's. The genesis of file
sharing can be linked to the creation of MP3. MP3 is an audio data
compression technology which reduces the size of music/audio files.
MP3 was standardised in 1990/1991 and was released in 1995. Software
applications - named media/mp3 players - were developed from 1996-1998:
which were capable of "ripping" audio files from CD's
and creating an MP3 file in the process. MP3 was a phenomenon, in
part, due to the fact that the majority of Internet users were dialup
Internet users. MP3 enabled users to download music files - which
they were incapable of doing within an acceptable timeframe - for
the first time.
To satisfy and sate the appetite of users looking for MP3 files
to download, file sharing (peer-to-peer)
programs were created. File sharing came to worldwide prominence
with the release of Napster in 1999. Napster
was created by Shawn Parker and is credited as being the first peer-to-peer
file sharing program. Napster allowed people to share files over
the Internet; although it primarily shared audio files encoded in
the MP3 format. Napster "ran into" legal issues - due
to it operating a centralised database of download locations - and
was deemed to have engaged in copyright infringement, and was shutdown
However, the end of Napster was not the end of file sharing: a
game of "cat and mouse" was begun, with new file sharing
programs being created that attempted to circumvent copyright infringement.
While file sharing programs, like Audiogalaxy and Kazaa, were successful
in the short term, their fate was the same as Napster's eventually.
However, while Napster only allowed users to download/upload/share
a selection of file types; with subsequent programs (client
programs referred to as client-side
programs) allowed users to exchange a wider variety of file types.
The technology behind file sharing varies from program to program,
and network to network. To circumvent copyright laws, file sharing
networks have devised various structures in which users can share
files. BitTorrent - and Torrent files - is a relatively new file
sharing technology. Torrents use metafiles to link to content: making
the direct link between file downloaders and uploaders less obvious.
Websites which publish metafiles, like Pirate Bay, have come under
fierce legal scrutiny and legal challenges to shut the website down.
Therefore, file sharing programs have had to continually alter/update
their service so as to not "fall foul" to legal challenges.
One of the "chief" problems that users have experienced
with file sharing programs is adware/spyware. Some of the most notable
file sharing companies have secretly installed adware/spyware programs;
typically when the said file sharing program was installed. Viruses
have been another problem: with early versions of file sharing programs
not including a function to scan files for viruses before they were
downloaded. The developers of file sharing programs took note: most
eventually promised they were adware/spyware free, and included
a function to scan downloaded files for viruses.
The most controversial aspect of file sharing is piracy
(and warez communities) (many software
applications use keys to combat piracy).
There has been a crackdown on illegal file sharing by media bodies
such as the 'Recording Industry Association of America'. The RIAA
have correctly cited that downloading and uploading copyrighted
materials, without permission, violates international copyright
infringement laws. Many users, especially in the US, have been taken
to court, or, have settled out of court for fines of over $2000.
Due to the illegality of facilitating the transfer of copyrighted
material, many file sharing programs/networks have been shutdown
due to lawsuits and legal challenges. Napster, for example, in 2001,
was ordered to stop the trading of copyrighted material. Similar
scenario's have effected: eDonkey, LimeWire, Grokster, and the Madster
network. LimeWire, for example, in 2010, was ruled to have committed
copyright infringement in a United States District Court.
It should be highlighted that file sharing / peer to peer sharing
programs have a perfectly legal use. Sharing files which are not
copyrighted is legal, it is only when copyrighted files are uploaded
and downloaded - without the express permission of the owner - that
the use of such programs becomes illegal.