Usage of Peer-to-Peer Networks for Music File-Sharing: “Piracy or Revolution?”
This essay examines the usage of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks for music file-sharing and intends to analyse this usage in the context of current copyright policy. This will be achieved by addressing the following issues. Firstly, the history and principle of P2P networks will be outlined. Secondly, it will be analysed whether P2P file-sharing can be seen as an act of ‘theft’. Thirdly, the paper will examine how P2P networks are used and what cultural significance they represent. Fourthly, the future of P2P networks will be debated and finally the results of this paper will be summarised and discussed.
Music file-sharing via P2P networks is the subject of controversy in the public discourse, while the music industry dominates the discourse by labelling P2P file-sharing as ‘stealing of music’ and claiming that it will cause substantial economic damage. This form of music sharing was first introduced by Napster in 1999. Napster’s idea harks back to the very beginning of the Internet, when users traded files in direct contact with each other (Burkart & McCourt, 2003, p. 339). Within a P2P network all computers serve both as servers and clients (Vaidhyanathan, 2005, p.7) so that a direct connection between two computers is possible. However, Napster used a central database for all files stored within the network. This enabled the music industry to take legal action against Napster and finally to shut down the service in 2001.
Nevertheless, until its forced shutdown Napster’s service experienced immense popularity and questioned the traditional distribution model of the music industry. Napster’s popularity was based on four technical innovations that made music file-sharing via P2P possible in this form (Bakker, 2005, pp. 43–44). Firstly, the development of the MP3 standard by the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft provided a compression of music files to a twelfth of their original size. Secondly, the introduction of high-bandwidth Internet connections such as ISDN, DSL or cable further accelerated down- and uploading. Thirdly, the introduction of so-called ‘multi-media’ computers with more storage capacity, built-in soundcard, speakers and CD-Burner facilitated the storing and play-back of digital music files. Finally, the availability of – mostly free – software applications to transfer CDs into MP3s made it easy for users to contribute to the Napster network.
After Napster’s closure other – purely decentralised – P2P networks such as Fasttrack, Gnutella and eDonkey appeared, none of which relied on a central server. These networks made legal action more complicated for the music industry. However, the music industry continued its strategy of litigation, legislation and public campaigns (Freedman, 2003, p. 176) and started suing individual users of P2P networks in 2003.
The question arises whether music file-sharing via P2P networks is indeed – as the industry claims – an action of ‘theft’.
The legal evaluation of P2P music file-sharing is somewhat more complicated than the industry’s official statements. Due to the word limitation we cannot discuss all aspects of this complex problem, but the main points will be mentioned. Music file-sharing cannot be ‘theft’ in a traditional sense because digital copying does not mean that a physical artefact of the industry is removed and cannot be sold anymore. On the contrary, the music on P2P networks is not sold, so that the claim of actual damage for the industry remains controversial. It is possible that users who download copyright material would buy a CD later or would never have bought the music if they had had to pay. Thus, the industry cannot prove its claim of economical damage.
Besides, private copying of music existed beforehand. Music tapes were copied in an analog – and therefore ‘imperfect’ – form and were exchanged between peers. This copying was attacked by the industry in a remarkably similar way before it was accepted as a ‘grey area’ of the copyright issue.
Finally, as Lessig (2004, p. 38) points out, some types of traded files within a P2P network obviously cause no economical harm at all: music without any copyright (such as own productions or promotional material) and music that is not commercially traded anymore. This further undermines the industry’s claim of immense damage to its record sales due to P2P file-sharing.
Thus, the music industry’s statement that P2P file-sharing represents an act of ‘theft’ or ‘piracy’ can be seen as overly simplistic. While P2P file-sharing causes actual damage – by those users who download copyright material as a substitute for CD’s – the extent of this damage is unclear. Furthermore, the record industry – as it did throughout its history – seems to be blaming a new technology for dropping sales and attempting to gain total control over its commodified content.
This leads to the question of how P2P networks are used and what cultural significance the music file-sharing via P2P networks represents. As mentioned before, this file-sharing can be seen as a new and digitalised form of exchanging music artefacts among peers. As the analog practice, P2P file-sharing constitutes a ‘gift economy’ with participants not pursuing economic goals (May, 2003). In this sense, P2P networks – based on the structure of the Internet – are the ‘digitalised’ form of peer groups. They allow the exchange of files between remote computers and finally the transfer to other media such as MP3 players and mobile hard drives. It can be argued that P2P networks in our ‘media ecology’ represent a substantial virtual space for the exchange of information.
 In August 2000 6.7 million users shared files within the Napster network (Burkart & McCourt, 2003, p. 339).
 This figure is based on the popular bit rate of 128 kbps. However, compression rates of 96, 160 and 192 kbps are also relatively common.
 It is understood that ‘multi-media’ is a relative term.
 In the case of these new networks, the industry targets the software developers such as the maker of Kazaa, Sharman Networks, in Australia (Gray, 2005).
 While the Napster service was online, CD sales in the first two quartes of 2000 actually increased by 9.9 %. (Alexander, 2002, p. 155).
 The record industry made the same claim of economical harm in the case of cassette taping. Its then public campaign looks like a direct blueprint for current ones: ‘Home taping is killing music’ (Lessig, 2004, p. 38).
 The term ‘media ecology’ describes the dynamic system of different media forms which all inhabit different niches (Jackson, 2005).