Is free and unlimited file-sharing good for society

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Is free and unlimited file-sharing good for society?

Viewpoint: Yes, free and unlimited file-sharing through peer-to-peer systems such as Napster is good for society because it encourages choice, provides opportunities for underdogs, and spawns new and innovative technologies.

Viewpoint: No, free and unlimited file-sharing is not good for society. Rather, it is a form of piracy that threatens basic intellectual property rights that are rightly protected by law.

In 1999, a 19-year-old college student named Shawn Fanning developed a computer program and Web site that made it possible for users of the Internet to download and exchange musical recordings (and later, video recordings) for free. He called his system Napster, and in the next two years, Fanning would become a hero to many—and an arch-villain to many others. The controversy over Napster would open up larger questions concerning copyright, ownership, and the relationship of artists and media companies to the public.

The means of placing music or moving pictures on a computer file did not originate with Napster; that technology came in the form of the mp3, a compressed file format whose origins date back to the late 1980s, and which made possible the recording of large amounts of sound and video data on mp3 and mpeg files respectively. The innovation of Napster was in the file-sharing method applied by Fanning, who put into place a variety of what is known in the computer industry as peer-to-peer networking.

Up until the mid-1990s, most home computers or PCs in America existed on their own, as little islands on which information could be stored and retrieved. However, thanks to the spread of the Internet and the linkage of computers to the Net through Internet service providers, most PCs (not to mention larger computers used by business) soon were linked to networks, or systems of computers connected by communication lines. A network typically depends on a server, an extremely powerful computer that acts as a central governing mechanism, routing information and directing communication traffic. In a peer-to-peer network, however, there is no dedicated or full-time server; instead, each computer is at once independent and linked with the others in a non-hierarchical arrangement.

The particular genius of Fanning's system is in its file-storage mechanism. While Napster required a server to perform basic functions, the server did not have to function as a memory bank for its users' thousands upon thousands of mp3 files—which, though they are compressed, still take up far more disk space than most user files such as word-processing documents. Rather, "subscribers" of Napster (which charged no fee) downloaded Napster software, which made it possible to dedicate a portion of their hard drive to storing (and thus making available to other users) the songs and videos they downloaded.

That Fanning's software represented a stroke of genius is hardly a matter of dispute among people who understand enough about computers to appreciate the technology involved. The controversy surrounding Napster, however, does not revolve around questions of technological genius; rather, it is concerned with something much more visceral—property rights, and specifically, copyright. If Napster users could download songs without paying for the CD, did this not amount to a form of theft? Were they not taking something that did not belong to them, engaging in a form of mass shoplifting—and shoplifting of art, no less?

Record-company executives, along with a number of prominent musicians, answered these concerns strongly in the affirmative. The music, they said, belonged to those who had created it, and/or to those who owned the legal rights to the music. Many defenders of Napster responded to this obvious legal, moral, and ethical point with arguments that held little water. A number of these "arguments" took the approach that two wrongs could make a right. Thus it was claimed, for instance, that since record-company executives "steal" from musicians, there is nothing wrong with fans stealing. Others asserted that because some musicians make huge and in some cases presumably unde-served profits, they should be compelled, against their will, to "give something back" to the public. Some Napster partisans even offered up a watered-down form of Marxism, claiming that music "belongs to the people."

The emptiness of such claims unfortunately obscured the many arguments in favor of Napster as a form of technology. Setting aside the issues of copyright, a great many aspects of Napster did serve to recommend it. First of all, it was a brilliant technological creation, and quickly spawned a number of new technologies—among them encryption devices designed to protect a file from being "napped" and shared without the payment of royalties. Furthermore, Napster provided for a much-needed democratization of music, which had become a top-heavy industry dominated by millionaire rock stars and billionaire music-company moguls.

In this regard, the growth of Napster can be seen as part of a larger movement toward letting the "voice of the people" be heard in music. Also part of this movement was the adoption, in May 1991, of computerized Soundscan record sales data for use in calculating the Billboard charts. Up until that time, the magazine had relied on the reports of record-store owners and employees, a method that invited considerable error and even more corruption. Adoption of Soundscan helps to explain why radio became generally more gritty and edgy in the 1990s, after the bland commercialism of the 1980s. Yet radio, and along with it MTV, have remained the province of a few multi-million-selling acts, while the vast majority of artists must depend on near-constant touring to capture and maintain a following.

Clearly, record companies would benefit if they could figure out a way to harness the power of peer-to-peer networks, and provide fans with what they wanted, rather than what corporations say fans should want. This is exactly what the media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG set out to do when in 2002 it took control of Napster, shut down by court order in 2001. The new, "legal" Bertelsmann-controlled Napster would have to compete with Kazaa and numerous other file-sharing services that had sprung up in Napster's wake. Nevertheless, hopes remained high that Napster, once an outlaw technology, could become a part of the way that companies—in this case, record companies—do business over the Internet.


Viewpoint: Yes, free and unlimited file-sharing through peer-to-peer systems such as Napster is good for society because it encourages choice, provides opportunities for underdogs, and spawns new and innovative technologies.

Many years ago, the great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: "There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet more blamable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavor the refutation of a hypothesis, by a pretense of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality." Hume's statement could as easily be applied to the public debate in the early twenty-first century over peer-to-peer file-sharing systems such as Napster. Because these systems make it possible for users to download music and other forms of entertainment from the Internet without paying for them, many dismiss the practice simply as immoral and illegal.

This opinion has the outspoken support, understandably enough, of the "big five" members of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These five companies—BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal Music, and Warner—control the vast majority of record labels, and exercise a near-oligopoly over the music industry. Equally unsurprising is the opposition to file-sharing services expressed by a wide array of recording artists, ranging from Neil Young to Dr. Dre to Lars Ulrich of Metallica. Ulrich may be a drummer for a loud heavy-metal band, but he has proven an articulate spokesman for his cause, as evidenced by an editorial for Newsweek in 2000. "[T]he critics of Metallica," Ulrich wrote, "keep asking, 'Who does Napster hurt?' Well, they're not really hurting us—yet—but I do know who they are hurting already: owners of small independent record stores."

Despite their differences in musical style, Ulrich, Young, Dre, and others have something in common when it comes to the debate over file-sharing: all of them sell millions and millions of albums, and thus, like the "big five," they perceive themselves as being economically affected by the free sharing of files over the Internet. Naturally, they do not speak of themselves as rich rock stars, but rather in terms of the moral issue (i.e., file-sharing as "stealing"), or like Ulrich, they portray themselves as advocates of the underdog.

In fact, the underdog—obscure and emerging artists, new labels, and most of all the fans—is likely to benefit, rather than suffer, because of file-sharing. Peer-to-peer systems such as Napster greatly encourage consumer choice, allowing listeners to circumvent the hierarchies that have controlled entertainment in general, and music in particular, for the better part of a century. Furthermore, the technology of file-sharing opens the door to all sorts of technological advances—including, ironically enough, ones in encryption. Thus, when the legal issues are worked out, the artists and companies that own the music will indeed get paid for it.

The "Big Five" of 1908

Once upon a time, Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) led his own effort to establish an oligopoly that would control an entire industry. Among the many great inventions to emerge from his Edison Manufacturing Company in New Jersey was an early version of the motion picture camera, which he patented as the Kinetoscope. By 1894, he had set out to make commercial use of his invention, but he soon recognized that increased competition in the nascent industry might cut into his profits. Therefore, in 1908 the "big five" film companies—Edison Manufacturing Company, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, and Pathé—formed an alliance called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPCC), through which they intended to dominate the market.

Yet as the "big five" leaders of the MPCC would discover, no one can bridle a technology whose time had come, and soon there emerged a legion of independent or "outlaw" filmmakers determined to make films regardless of what Thomas Edison wanted. One of them was Gilbert Anderson, who had starred in the Edison Company's 1903 motion picture The Great Train Robbery, generally regarded as the first true feature film in history. Determined to make films and gain a share of the profits himself, Anderson moved as far away from Edison's headquarters as he could, locating his production company outside Oakland, California. Edison responded to Anderson and others by dispatching a legion of patent attorneys to California, and exercised his influence to have renegade film-makers arrested. The filmmakers responded by moving to a place in southern California from which they could easily escape to Mexico if need be—a Los Angeles suburb called Hollywood. But in 1912, these fears became moot when the U.S. government brought an anti-trust suit against the MPCC, which was declared illegal and dissolved in 1915.

Peer-to-Peer Computing

Nearly a century later, much had changed, and yet nothing had. The former rogues and independents of Hollywood had become the entertainment establishment, and like Edison long before, they sought to establish oligopolistic control over the entertainment markets. Instead of grainy silent pictures that ran for less than 10 minutes, the technology in dispute now involved networks, or systems of computers connected by communication lines. And taking the place of Gilbert Anderson nearly a century after The Great Train Robbery was a 19-year-old college student named Shawn Fanning, who in 1999 developed a means for listeners to download songs from the Internet without having to pay for them. Fanning established a Web site at which music fans could do just that, and he called the site by a name that implied stealing or napping (as in kidnap): Napster.

Napster is an example of a peer-to-peer network. Most networks include at least one server, a computer that provides services such as routing, access to files, or the sharing of peripherals. By contrast, in a peer-to-peer network there are no dedicated or full-time servers, nor is there any hierarchy among the computers; rather, each computer becomes like a little server, controlling the security and administration functions for itself. This meant that Napster could operate on limited expenses, since instead of having its own dedicated server to store mp3s or other electronic music files, it relied on the users' hard drives. Each user would set aside a directory on his or her hard drive, and there would store music files for sharing on the network. Firewall or protective software would ensure that other users could not gain access to other parts of the users' hard drive, but as long as the user was connected to the Napster network, all other participants in the network would have access to all the files in the dedicated directory.

As Napster appeared on the scene, it caused a number of effects. Among the most obvious was the outcry by record companies and recording artists, who raised both legal and moral concerns. The result was a widespread public debate over the matter of ownership when it comes to works of art, and though the opponents of Napster were clearly correct in saying that it is wrong to take something without paying for it, the discussion soon involved terms more complicated than simple black and white or right and wrong. For example, as proponents of Napster pointed out, there is nothing illegal or immoral about a person downloading a piece of music that he or she already possesses on a legally purchased CD or cassette.

Another effect of the Napster brouhaha was the swift response on the part of the "big five" lawyers, who, like the patent attorneys under Edison's pay three or four generations earlier, sought to shut down Napster. Yet even as the "big five" sought to shut down Napster, the parent company of one of their members was involved in reconfiguring it. BMG, or Bertels-mann Music Group, is just one arm of Bertelsmann AG, a vast German-based media conglomerate that owns publishing companies (including Random House in the United States), TV and radio stations, newspapers, and so forth. Even as BMG was involved in legal action that shut down Napster in 2001, Bertelsmann acquired Napster's assets on May 17, 2002, and set about reshaping Napster as a fully legal enterprise that charges listeners a fee to download songs. The fate of the reconfigured Napster remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: for every peer-to-peer network, such as Napster, that corporate giants manage to shut down, another three or four—Kazaa, Gnutella, Morpheus, and so on—appears to take its place.

File-Sharing and the Future

To some people—and not just those who stand to lose profits—Napster and its ilk seem to have posed a crisis. Others, however, see a range of opportunities in this "crisis." One of these opportunities is the vast array of new technologies that have appeared in Napster's wake, and even Kazaa and other second-generation peer-to-peer systems represent an improvement over Napster. For instance, Napster had a server that did the searching when users requested a particular song; Kazaa uses members' computers to search for the music. This led to the somewhat novel ruling by a Dutch court in 2002, to the effect that Kazaa users were violating copyright laws, but Kazaa itself was not.

This is just the beginning of the improvements in technology spawned by peer-to-peer computing, many of which have enormous potential applications in business. The linking of computers may make it possible for networks to avail themselves of the unused computing power of members, a fact exemplified by the SETI@home project: users all over the world devote the "downtime" of their computers to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). While the computer is not in use, its resources are directed toward analysis of data collected from the skies, searching for radio signals indicating intelligent life. This makes it possible to replicate the processing abilities of a supercomputer for a fraction of the cost, and to log an amount of computer processing time that would be impossible on just one machine: in mid-2002, SETI@home announced that it had logged 1 million years' worth of computer processing time.

On a more down-to-earth level, businesses such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel stand to benefit tremendously from systems that allow the sharing of processing power and the harnessing of resources that would otherwise be dormant. These companies, along with several smaller firms, formed the Peer-to-Peer Working Group in 2000 to exploit the potential of peer-to-peer networks. "If this was just about file-sharing," Grove Networks president Ray Ozzie told Information Week, "it would be the flavor of the month. This has big implications for supply-chain management. Partners in different companies will be able to work together very closely and define what they want each other to see." As Andrew Grimshaw of Meta-Computing LLC, a peer-to-peer software provider, explained in the same article, "The critical mass had been building. Now it's ready to explode."

Ironically, among the forms of technology influenced by peer-to-peer networking are more sophisticated encryption devices designed to protect copyrighted material from illegal file-sharing. Not only has such software been developed as a bulwark against Napster and other such services, but those companies who seek to cash in on the potential of peer-to-peer are developing such technology to protect the products on their own sites.

But the most important effect of peer-to-peer networking is societal rather than technological. Peer-to-peer democratizes music and other forms of entertainment, taking it out of the exclusive control of rapacious record companies that exploit artists and fans alike, and of the faceless executives who determine the extremely limited playlists of FM radio. Bands as diverse as the Grateful Dead and Kiss—or even, ironically, Metallica—have sold millions of albums despite receiving almost no airplay, or at least only air-play for selected radio-friendly hits. File-sharing offers the opportunity for fans to hear what they really want, instead of pop sensations manufactured by corporate America.

Will people pay for what they hear on peer-to-peer networks? Bertelsmann seems to have put its considerable influence behind the affirmative position. Furthermore, the fact that musicians today—in another outgrowth of the Napster phenomenon—often provide free song downloads as incentive for buying a new album, also suggests that record companies are catching on. One of the byproducts of the information age is an increasing democratization of society, with new technology and marketing platforms as diverse as Amazon and XM Radio making it possible for consumers to get what they want, instead of what a corporate executive tells them they should want. If sales of CDs are dropping, as many record companies claim they are, it is not because of Napster; it is because music fans are tired of the machinery that creates superstars based on the bottom line rather than on talent. Peer-to-peer networking thus offers a host of benefits to society, and to fear or oppose this is as futile—and ultimately as detrimental—as past opposition to new scientific discoveries such as the heliocentric universe or Darwin's theory of evolution.


Viewpoint: No, free and unlimited file-sharing is not good for society. Rather, it is a form of piracy that threatens basic intellectual property rights that are rightly protected by law.

In the Good Ol' Days

Anyone who has actually attempted to get permission to use copyrighted material in today's society will have at least one or two horror stories to tell. The process by nature is sometimes arduous, requiring several phone calls or e-mails and often a formal request in writing. It is no wonder that many people throw their hands in the air and give up in disgust. But nonetheless, you're supposed to try to do the right thing. You're supposed to credit your source. It's part of the professional honor system. And, in some cases, you may be required to pay a fee. For example, this is often true if you want to reprint someone's artwork or use a musician's song. It all depends on the requirements of the person or corporation that holds the copyright and therein lies the controversy surrounding free and unlimited file-sharing.

Just because something is on the Internet doesn't mean that it automatically falls into the public domain category. Or does it? With the advent of the computer age, the lines have gotten blurry. In fact, many would argue that they've gotten far too blurry. Plus, the anonymity of the Internet often allows information to be shared without accountability, and most of us have heard more than one account of how someone's work was used on the Internet without credit or permission. It wasn't that long ago when honesty actually counted for something, but for some people the end always justifies the means. Evidence of this can be found in the results of a Gartner Group survey, which was reported by Sylvia Dennis for Newsbytes. According to the survey, 28% of the people polled who listened to shared music files on the Web thought they were violating copyright law and 44% were unsure, but were still doing it anyway. So much for the honor system.

To complicate matters, the Framers of the Constitution certainly didn't anticipate a world revolutionized by computers, but they did build into the Constitution the ability to amend the law over time. However, change comes slowly and, in some cases, the law hasn't caught up with the technology. Whether we even need new laws is yet another aspect of the debate. After all, the existing copyright laws should be enough; they provide clear guidelines regarding intellectual property. However, people who favor the free and unlimited use of file-sharing say that material shared on the Internet falls into a different category and that the purpose of the Internet is to provide a vehicle for information-sharing without cost to the public.

On the surface, this argument seems logical and appealing. In fact, it is partially based in truth. Indeed, one of the most wonderful things about the Internet is the accessibility of information that can be found there. However, being able to disseminate information is one thing, but owning it is quite another. In the case of Napster, for example, the real controversy wasn't about sharing music files. It was about doing it without the express permission of the musicians or the record producers. It was, in essence, about professional courtesy, and about money—about big money. Napster argued that sharing music files actually increased product sales and promoted a musician's work. They claimed that the process of file-sharing was nothing more than what friends do when they lend each other a CD, but the music industry disagreed, claiming that thousands of dollars were lost in potential sales. Besides, musicians, unknown or otherwise, could create their own Web sites, if they wanted to; they didn't need Napster to do it for them. So, the swords were drawn on both sides and the legal battles that resulted made national headlines. Although Napster was ordered to change to a fee-based membership, the situation generated a lot of debate regarding what was fair and not fair.

A Society without Integrity

On one level, the Napster controversy was about the unauthorized use of intellectual property with a clear market value. On a deeper level, however, there's much more at stake. Do we really want to live in a society without honor and personal integrity? Most of us learn about what it means to share when we are very young. We learn that the process embraces the idea that consent is requested by the borrower and granted from the lender. If one child grabs a toy from another's arms without asking, the child doing the grabbing gets scolded. This is because the behavior isn't nice; it isn't moral. This concept is no different when one considers the issues surrounding file-sharing. In the case of Napster, for example, allowing millions of people to listen to music for free without the consent of the owner is not morally right just because it is done on a grander scale. In fact, the activity is actually "piracy," not sharing.

At least that's the way United States District Court Judge Marilyn Patel saw it when she ordered Napster to shut down. She clearly saw the difference between a person buying a CD and lending it to a friend and the unauthorized distribution of music to millions of people for free—all of whom never paid a dime for the creative content. Napster representatives argued that no one was really being hurt by their activity, but that's simply not true. Damage was being done both monetarily and spiritually. When dishonesty is encouraged, society loses. It's that simple.

The Bargain Basement Mentality

In an article she wrote for entitled "The Future of File-sharing and Copyright," Alexis Gutzman posed an interesting question: What if enough people vote for whatever you're selling to be distributed for free? Most of us would be outraged at the thought, wouldn't we? Then why do some people think that receiving free music through file-sharing is okay? Maybe it has something to do with inflation and the economy. Maybe some people are just so tired of paying outrageous prices for certain products that they'll leap at the chance to get them for free, whether it's ethical or not. Certainly, as Gutzman mentions, it doesn't help matters when you look at some of the price gouging that goes on in some of the record stores across the country. Combine that with the fact that many musicians aren't adequately compensated for their work and you don't always have a sympathetic public.

Nonetheless, Gutzman is quick to point out that sympathy is hardly the point. In a subsequent article for, she identified two problems with everything being free. The first problem is philosophical in nature; it has to do with the mentality of the consumer. There are, in her definition, two types of consumers: fair traders and bottom feeders. Bottom feeders, she explains, always want things either for free or at prices so low that they are unbeatable. Fair traders, on the other hand, don't always demand to buy things below cost. Instead, they want to pay a fair price for a product, which ultimately helps fuel the economy. Sadly, too many people today embrace a bargain basement mentality. They don't care if the business they're dealing with succeeds or fails. All that matters to them is one thing: saving money. The second problem is practical in nature; it has to do with profit. When businesses start losing money, they are sometimes forced to make unpleasant changes. These changes can result in the elimination of valuable services and can also mean that some people lose their jobs. And in the worst case scenario, the company can go out of business altogether. Then nobody wins.

Aside from the two problems mentioned above, there is another problem with wanting everything for free that is equally, if not more, disturbing. It has to do with the creative process. Let's use a musician as an example. Most true musicians will say they are artists first, business people second. However, that doesn't mean that they don't deserve financial compensation for their creative efforts. Indeed, many artists often complain that the creative process is thwarted enough by the constant concern over the financial bottom line. The last thing they need to face is the free and unlimited distribution of their work through file-sharing.

Taking a Stand

Many corporations and educational institutions are taking a stand on file-sharing applications. Strict corporate policies are being developed that prohibit their use. Cornell University, for example, sent a memo to its faculty and staff warning them of the personal liability they face by violating copyright law. Along with the legal considerations involved, institutions are also concerned about the increased network traffic that file-sharing applications tend to generate. They can cause in-house servers to lag, and productivity suffers as a result.


Proponents of free and unlimited file-sharing have brought up the argument that it gives people more choices and opportunities and encourages technological innovations. That may all be true, but does the end justify the means? Although we've moved into a technological age, it doesn't mean that we need to leave the ethics of the good ol' days behind. The honor system is as important today as it was before the Internet. Just because we have the ability to engage in free and unlimited file-sharing doesn't mean that we should or that it is good for society.


Further Reading

Clark, Don. "Napster Alliance Boosts Prospects for Encryption." Wall Street Journal (November 2, 2000): B-1.

Dennis, Sylvia. "Web Users Think Net File-sharing Violates Copyright—Gartner" [cited July 16, 2002]. <>.

Foege, Alec. "Bertelsmann's Quest to Harness the Napster Genie." New York Times (May 26, 2002): 4.

Gutzman, Alexis. "The Future of File-sharing and Copyright." [cited July 16, 2002]. <,,3551_424781,00.html>.

———. "Something for Nothing; Nothing for Everyone." [cited July 16, 2002]. <,,9561_528571,00.html>.

Lanier, Jaron. "A Love Song for Napster." Discover 22, no. 2 (February 2001).

Lerman, Karen. "In Favor of Napster." Writing 23, no. 4 (January 2001): 15.

McClure, Polley. "Network Capacity and Policy Issues Arising from the Use of Napster and Other File-Sharing Programs." Cornell University Web site [cited July 16, 2002]. <>.

McDougall, Paul. "The Power of Peer-to-Peer." Information Week 801 (August 28, 2000): 22-24.

Parkes, Christopher. "Peer-to-Peer Pressure." Financial Times (November 7, 2000): 4.

Richtel, Matt. "Music Services Aren't Napster, But the Industry Still Cries Foul." New York Times (April 17, 2002): C-1.

Snider, Mike. "No Copying, No Trading? NoKidding: Copyright Fight May Narrow Our Options." USA Today (March 6, 2001): D-1.

Ulrich, Lars. "It's Our Property." Newsweek (June 5, 2000): 54.



The use of electronic codes to protect against theft of information stored on a computer.


A system of computers connected by communication lines.


An economic situation in which a few companies together exercise virtual control over the market.


A computer network in which there are no dedicated or full-time servers, nor any hierarchy among the computers; rather, each computer controls the security and administration functions for itself.


When the copyright expires, intellectual property is considered part of the public domain, which means it can be used without charge or authorization.


A computer that provides services such as routing, access to files, or the sharing of peripherals.

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Is free and unlimited file-sharing good for society

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Is free and unlimited file-sharing good for society