It’s Free… Or At Least Free to Me, So What’s Wrong With P2P?, Part 1 (Legality)

Millions of people are using file sharing programs for all sorts of reasons… most of them illegal, such as the downloading of music files in the form of MP3’s or even entire software applications. Today’s post introduces the topic of what peer-to-peer programs are all about, and some of the legal issues surrounding them, for software publishers, users and school networks.

Peer-to-Peer software, or P2P, is a method of directly connecting two computers together in order to share information without going through a centralized server. That means two people using a P2P program, will connect their computers together to transfer a file – such as an MP3 from Dave Gahan’s new CD, Hourglass. After one person has bought the CD and ripped the tracks onto her/his computer then it can be shared using a P2P program and other users can obtain it without having to hop on the subway and going to the store, or waiting 3 days for Amazon. This is pretty neat from a technologist’s point of view because it can result in faster downloads as a user is able to gather different parts of the file from different sources thereby reducing the strain on any one remote computer. Unfortunately, it is a problem for an educational Technology Coordinator to deal with.

Not too long ago, TeacherJay found one of his students had managed to install a copy of Lime Wire on a lab computer at the college he works at. The specific ports (think of a computer’s IP address and internet connection as being the “Information Superhighway” and the ports like lanes on that highway) that P2P programs use are blocked on the college’s network, so the software is useless. Students are not only banned from installing software period – they do not have the necessary administrator rights to do so (unless TeacherJay is very busy and missed changing the settings on a new computer he was updating). Whenever the college sees P2P activity they permanently disable the MAC address of the computer that tried to access it – this will cut off its access to the internet. In speaking to his students regarding the incident, TeacherJay noticed how many of them seemed to think there was nothing wrong with downloading music using P2P programs.

When the concept was explained that they were obtaining a product that they did not pay for and it was essentially stealing from the artist and the recording company they seemed to understand, though they felt no sympathy for the wealthy distributors of the content – in other words, “nothing wrong with stealing from them because they have lots of money anyway”. More alarming was that they did not know that this was illegal. They see the relative ease that a person can install the software and be flooded with music files, and even software. The argument that “everybody’s doing it” seems to be strong.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or a corrupted MP3?), TeacherJay reminds them once again that it is illegal. This is not the first time that he is viewed as being out of touch with what the kids are doing today… and just imagines if they knew what he was doing with computers when he was their age(!) – not so long ago. When he has told them that this is against the college’s policy and consequences include fines, loss of internet access, expulsion and possibly turning students over to legal authorities they see it as an empty threat. Showing them stories of students at other universities who have been fined thousands of dollars for downloading music illegally is just laughed off with the attitude of invincibility that comes from being 18 and the thought that I’ll never be caught!.

Remember the Napster fiasco a few years ago? Well, here’s the quick and dirty – college student, Shawn Fanning grew tired of having to hunt for illegally copied music from such difficult-to-use sources as IRC, and USENET, so he developed a software with an easy-to-use interface that used centralized servers to store lists of user IP addresses and the files they were willing to share so that when one user searched the logs, s/he would be able to connect to anyone else sharing those files. Being that this was just after the Y2K bug did not destroy the internet, and college students often had access to high-speed networks perfect for sharing large MP3 files (as well as not having any money to obtain music legally), and no scruples… the software quickly gained in popularity. That is until Metallica, Dr. Dre, and Madonna ganged up on Napster for ripping them off and eventually it became what it is today – a pay for music service similar to Rhapsody and the iTunes Store. The events did spurn a revolution though and inspired lots of new software projects, such as Grokster, Kazaa and Bearshare.

These newer programs have been able to stay afloat (barely) by a simple change in how they work. They do not hold the user info on a centralized server. Rather users’ computers work together to create an ad-hoc network that can be searched. In this way, the producers of such software are steering clear of the legal trouble by simply reminding their users not to use it for illegal purposes – see this question that downloaders of Lime Wire must answer correctly. In fact, there is even a website (probably several) devoted to illegal file sharing known as ZeroPaid. Darthmouth College provides their students with a nice easy-to-read guide explaining what can be done with the college network with regards to P2P, file sharing, MP3’s, copyrights and even that often misunderstood “fair use” clause. Unfortunately, big name websites, such as Wired, publish articles for students on how to share files illegally, with just a quick mention of the legal issues buried at the bottom of the article. Sites that list torrent files, such as The Pirate Bay, are getting blocked by college campuses, but still growing in popularity.

While many people have a hard time understanding what copyright is all about – and the lines certainly become hazy when using material in the internet, is there cause for concern when these new adults seem to laugh off the work of others? Would they feel the same way if it was there content that was being copied? Would they see a difference if they were copying text and plagiarizing? Is it even important for people to understand these differences in the future or are the concepts of copyright and intellectual property going to be a thing of the past?Your comments and answers to any of these questions are appreciated – especially How can TeacherJay get his students to respect the college’s rules regarding P2P software?

Stay tuned for Part II (Security Threats)


5 Responses to “It’s Free… Or At Least Free to Me, So What’s Wrong With P2P?, Part 1 (Legality)”

  1. Open Thinking & Digital Pedagogy » Teach, Don’t Preach Says:

    […] reacts to a post from Teacher Jay who writes on his reflections in his classroom as he teaches his students why it’s wrong and […]

  2. emalyse Says:

    That’s a hard one to get across.When I worked in education the teachers were the biggest culprits (as they had greater admin access that could download such stuff). I tend to think this can only be implemented as a security policy and unless you start sharing their own work out to make a crass point (for which you’ll probably run into legal trouble) it’ll always be hard to get the copyright point across and that applies to software too (we used to block .exe.mp3 etc file types and block certain sites and IP addresses at the proxy server though I know that no policy is watertight and can be politically awkward to implement fairly).
    My experience is that computer users often treat computer access elsewhere as an extension of their experience at home. I tend to think that public access computers in education, libraries, community projects and business should have a clearly defined and more rigid controlled experience (‘they might do it there but we don’t do it here’).

  3. bryan Says:

    Great post! there is a larger issue here, I think, about how our desires tend to conflict with our ethics. Usually, and unfortunately, our desires win out in the end. When the desires of a culture are stronger than the ethics that the laws of a society are derived from, the laws become much less effective, if at all. So how do we give energy to our ethics to counter the desire for, say, more music?

    The problem is systemic, and the solution will be complex.

  4. TeacherJay Says:

    Incidentally – the Freshman student was caught and reprimanded after a number of her classmates and peers turned her in… she’s still a student with us and no fines… so maybe there was no lesson learned (?).

  5. Stephen Says:

    “I wouldn’t even consider that ipod. 30 gigabytes? I’d have to get rid of half my music, and I couldn’t live without that!”

    I’m guessing that sentence would sound somewhat silly and unreasonable to you, which goes to show that looking on technology from the outside in is a totally different experience. Right now, teenagers are considering the plusses and minuses of all the solutions which allow them to have their 5-10 thousand song music collections, and record labels are wondering why they can’t get make $5 a song by selling the song, “extended access rights” to allow it to be played on an mp3 player, the “high quality” fee so the song’s not intentionally wrecked, and the ringtone (which is just a super-low quality version of the song).

    Sure, teenagers exist with moral compasses. They’re the ones who are totally boycotting the major record labels and heading to sites like which offer independent music in the form of high quality mp3 with no DRM for thirty cents apiece, or the bands who give away their music and do live shows, sell merchandise.

    The rest of the kids, the ones who just don’t care whether singers get paid or not (including anyone stupid enough to plunk down money at a record store, which only different from stealing music in the regard you’re giving the RIAApirates money to sue your friends..) will simply keep breaking the law until anti-piracy efforts drive them into finding different, non-mainstream stuff. Sure, the hits are grand, but they’re not worth ten grand to most people.

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