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Peer 2 Peer Filesharing

You know what's cool about Peer to Peer (P2P as it's called)? You can download movies that are still in the theaters. You can find and download nearly any song in existence even if the album is no longer sold. You can download TV shows that you missed from the night before.

The problem is that doing so is almost always illegal. I don't know anyone who would argue if you downloaded a copy of a movie that you owned, but damaged somehow (perhaps the dog chewed your favorite DVD). However, downloading movies you don't own so you can avoid paying for a movie ticket or DVD is clearly stealing.

However, the only person who has the right to decide whether your download is legitmate or not (as far as I'm concerned) is you. Therefore, read my tips to make your downloads safe.

Viruses/spyware

Finding a good P2P program can be a challenge. There have been some cases of P2P programs opening vulnerabilities to viruses or installing spyware. To avoid bad or vulnerable programs, your best bet is to do online research and see what other people are using that hasn't given them trouble (the biggest file-sharing system around right now is called Bittorrent – details here).

Also be careful of the stuff you download. If you download a song or a movie and a web page or some other action launches when you try to play it, chances are that it's a locked file or some other kind of bogus trick. This also proves that your player is vulnerable to viruses (because no media player should execute commands, just play the file). If so, get a new media player (here are two good ones: Media Player Classic | Zoom Player).

And, of course, if you download software, you are risking everything that it's not actually a virus or some terrible code. This is very dangerous and I recommend being very selective about which, if any, software you download.

Unintended file sharing

Most P2P programs have a default folder on your computer where all files in that folder are automatically shared on the network. If you aren't careful with the setting of this and make sure to check it when you first install the program, you may end up sharing more than you intended.

For example, some people get confused by the settings of the program and accidently share their whole hard drive. If you don't want to share your family photos, your banking files, and your other personal data, make sure you understand how your program deals with upload folders.

A staff member working for Congress made this very same mistake and ended up leaking a sensitive document by accident!

Lawsuits

For most people, this is the most dangerous. The RIAA has proven to be merciless, and prosecutes old people, young children, and even dead people.

They're full of dirty tricks and aren't afraid to use them. Your best hope is to stop using P2P altogether, but there are two important reasons not to do that.

  1. There are plenty of legitimate files that you can get with P2P software
  2. It's wrong to give into bullying from an immoral coporation.

That having been said, here are some tips to avoiding detection from the RIAA and anyone else who would try to identify you from file sharing.

Avoiding detection

I believe there are many different situations where downloading copyrighted material may be fully justified (if not legal by the letter of the law):

I'm not encouraging you to download anything under any circumstances, but I will explain to you the best ways to keep information about what you download to yourself so that your downloading habits won't be left to strangers to view and interpret.

I am not a lawyer. I am not giving legal advice. Some of what I may tell you (surprise surprise) may turn out to be wrong either now or later as things change (as they do sometimes). Use your judgement, keep abreast of new trends, but most importantly, fileshare legally to avoid problems.

Don't upload

While this makes you a "leech" and can affect your ability to get downloads, not uploading is a fairly safe way to keep yourself private. Unless you happen to download a song directly from someone who reports to the RIAA (or similar), they have no way of knowing what's on your computer unless you're sharing it. Besides that, the RIAA is far more concerned with people who are sharing music, not downloading it.

Upload files no one will sue you for

If someone wants to sue me for sharing their commercials, they're nuts

Keep your upload folder full of files that no company would likely sue you for. Things like commercials, royalty free music, etc. On networks that require that you have uploads available, they rarely if ever check to make sure that you are sharing the same stuff you're downloading. So share your personal recordings. Who knows? Maybe you'll get a contract with a big producer.

Close downloads as soon as they're finished

Many programs like Bittorrent automatically share the files that you download. In these cases, it's best to remove the file from the shared folder or cancel the "seed" as soon as possible.

Use a known "bad guy" blocker

Peerguardian is a special program that's designed to prevent companies like the RIAA and MPAA (and spyware companies too) from being able to link your IP to you. There is also a plugin for Azerus that blocks IPs using Peerguardian's database.

Download the odd, old, and obscure

There aren't enough watchdogs in the world to monitor everything. Copyright holders need to focus on the bigger and more current media (the stuff that makes them the most money). By downloading the complete works of Daniel J. Hasbeen, an ambiguous and unpopular country western singer from the early last century (this is a fictional example, not a real person), chances are that no one will care. You are still taking a risk that you will be under the radar, but your chances of getting snagged when trying to download a movie that's still in the theaters is much higher because you're hitting the Motion Picture Ass. in the pocketbook (and they're likely to bite back).

Use a darknet

A darknet is a private filesharing network between a set of people who mostly know each other. Without public access and with the very tiny amount of people involved, these are far less likely to get attention from the bad guys.

Download only legal files

There are plenty of files around that aren't copyrighted. Certain foreign shows that aren't licensed in America (yeah Anime!), royalty free music (like those from unknown artists), and file downloads (many companies now use P2P to distribute large documents or software cheaply).

Use legal alternatives

An alternative to downloading movies is to use a "movies by mail" scheme like Netflix or Blockbuster online. I have used Blockbuster's deal and you'll have more movies than you can watch. I recommend building your queue of movies online to make sure you have 20 to 30 movies lined up that you want to see then activate the service. At the end of one month, cancel the service until you have another large set of movies you want to watch.

An alternative to downloading TV shows is to use free services online to watch them instead. Some services and many of the big networks themselves are providing TV for download or watching through the Internet. That way, if you miss an episode of your favorite show, you can just watch it online to catch up.

As for the all-popular music, there are many outlets for legal music (though most are not free). iTunes is especially well known as are eMusic, mp3.com, and even Walmart. The primary disadvantages here are the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the question of whether they have the song you want in the first place.

Final Notes

The RIAA logo
The RIAA logo

There's a large segment of the Internet user community that believes that it's important to share and download materials that could be lost to time otherwise. Certainly, you may want to download a song or movie that you haven't been able to find a retailer for so you at least have a copy (and purchase later when an outlet becomes available) and I don't know any reasonable person who would fault you for doing so.

However, it's important to know that there are mean, nasty corporations out there that are using P2P as an excuse to bully people out of their money and, to date, it's been working pretty well.

While we all collectively wonder how they can get away with this, you need to know about P2P issues if you plan to use it, and in some cases, even if you don't.

Having a conversation in public place is usually safe because people won't necessarily hear you or care what you say. When when you speak online in Chat, Instant Messaging, Forums, and Internet Forums, everything can change.
It might be fun to post information online about your thoughts or feelings, but that can come back to bite you.
Your kids are probably downloading music and movies. Be sure you handle the risks before it's too late!
Make sure you limit the damage your kids can do to your computer.
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