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Is P2P Legal?

by Jay Bisbee (2020-05-07)

P2P (peer-to-peer) is a type of file-sharing network that allows individuals across the globe to trade files, or torrents, directly with one another without going through a third-party server. Computers on a file-sharing network link up using peer-to-peer software. A few examples of files shared over P2P include freeware, shareware, betas, and original works of all kinds from music to photography, programs and scripts. It is illegal, however, to share copyrighted materials without permission.

Copyrighted materials include software that is being shared in a way that is inconsistent with its End User License Agreement (EULA), commercial music and movies. These products are often shared despite laws that protect the works by prohibiting unauthorized distribution. Even a user who only intends to download materials becomes a distributor because of the way P2P works. As a torrent is being received, the parts already present on the hard drive are automatically uploaded to others requesting the file.

Music illegally shared over P2P has been a central focus for lawsuits. This isn't a surprise since the first peer-to-peer network was dedicated to sharing music torrents. To stop the hemorrhaging of protected music over file-sharing networks, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued some 40,000 individuals.

Fortunately for the RIAA, the architecture of peer-to-peer networks makes it fairly simple to collect required proof, as the Internet Protocol (IP) address that identifies a user's computer on the Internet is displayed inside the P2P software when participating in file-sharing. If the RIAA or a third-party watchdog clicks on a commercial music torrent, the IP addresses of everyone sharing that file is displayed.

Despite illegal sharing, RIAA tactics have come under fire, most notably after unsuccessfully attempting to sue a forty-something disabled, single mother. Tanya Andersen of Portland, Oregon was wrongfully targeted for sharing gangsta rap music, then allegedly pressured for two years to settle out of court, even after the RIAA discovered an error in their methodology that pointed to a different individual as the culprit. The RIAA finally dropped the suit, but not before Andersen filed her own suit against the RIAA, accusing them of a campaign of harassment and intimidation.

The vast majority of RIAA lawsuits for P2P copyright infringement are settled out of court for $4,000-$5,000 US Dollars (USD) each. It's speculated that the RIAA's methods have resulted in more than just one wrongful lawsuit, but most P2P users don't have the means to hire a lawyer, and those who have gone to court and lost have been awarded outrageous sums by juries. Jammie Thomas was found guilty amid overwhelming evidence and ordered to pay $80,000 per song, for a total judgment of $1.92 million USD.

The RIAA's public reputation has taken a beating for what is often characterized as an overly aggressive reaction to the problem. In December 2008 the RIAA announced it would no longer target individuals, working with Internet Service Providers (ISP) to warn offenders instead. New lawsuits have continued to be filed, however, and the RIAA isn't the only one monitoring P2P networks. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is also targeting file-sharers that break copyright laws.

Andersen's harrowing ordeal along with mind-boggling jury awards have made some people steer clear of P2P all together. Even the hundreds of thousands of users that go to P2P for legal torrents face a perceived increased risk of malicious attack from simply advertising their IP addresses across a global network for anyone to target, or perhaps wrongfully record. As a result, many have turned to downloading binaries instead, a process that does not require uploading or sharing, and more resembles traditional downloading.

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