Understanding File Sharing

This document provides answers to commonly asked questions about file sharing. The questions typically come from members of the university community accused of illegal file sharing by the RIAA. It is for informational purposes only.

Please note that peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing applications are not supported by the DoIT Help Desk.

What is file sharing?

In general, file sharing is the practice of making files available for other individuals to download. It can be as simple as sharing a file for general consumption via My WebSpace or enabling file sharing on your computer’s operating system so that you can access your home computer files at work.

The most common and controversial method of file sharing, however, is the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) software. This includes software such as Limewire, Morpheus and BitTorrent. A more complete list of P2P file sharing software can be found here.

P2P software packages are installed by the computer owner and appear somewhat innocuous in their behavior; you install them and then use these programs to download "free" music, videos, etc. However, this "free" music is generally copyrighted material that is downloaded to your computer from other individual computers across the network. In addition, your computer becomes part of this network as well, enabling other individuals on the Internet to begin downloading music from your computer. You are then responsible for downloading and distributing copyrighted material illegally.

For more information see Wikipedia's article on File Sharing.

Why is file sharing illegal?

Not all file sharing is illegal. For instance, the sharing of non-copyrighted material or material with permission of the creator is legal. However, the majority of P2P file sharing involves sharing copyrighted or restricted material such as music, which is illegal.

A copyright grants the creator/owner of the material exclusive rights to the material and its distribution. By distributing this material without permission, the person distributing the material is violating copyright law and is subject to penalties under the law.

For more information see Wikipedia's article on File Sharing and the Law and Wikipedia's article on Copyright.

Can I install file sharing peer-to-peer (P2P) software to play music or videos only?

Yes, you can, but why would you? Both Mac and Windows computers come with media players installed (QuickTime, Windows Media Player).

In addition, most P2P software turns file sharing on by default as soon as the software is installed. This means that others may access materials on your computer without your knowledge, whether you have given permission or not. Downloading copyrighted music or movie files without permission is illegal. It is also illegal to share even purchased music or movie files with others, whether you know you have done so or not.

If you install P2P software to play music or video only, be sure to turn the file sharing options off. If you legally own and are playing copyrighted materials, but are sharing them inadvertently, you are still liable for violating copyright law.

How do I turn off P2P file sharing?

Indiana University maintains an article entitled Disabling Peer-to-Peer File Sharing. This article lists the more common P2P file sharing programs along with instructions on how to turn off the file sharing functions in these programs. We also recommend checking the manufacturer's web site for instructions.

What harm can P2P software do to my computer?

Several commercial P2P file sharing programs install adware and/or spyware on your computer.

In addition to serving up unwanted advertisements, these programs may gather personal data from your computer to send back to the parent company, alter your computer settings, and may interfere with your computer performance.

For more information visit the Help Desk's Spyware - FAQ article or see Wikipedia's article on Spyware.

What is the RIAA?

RIAA stands for the Recording Industry Association of America. RIAA is the trade group that represents the US recording industry. 

Where can I get more information?

Wikipedia:

University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Other resources:

Regardless of any information you may read and follow in this or any other article, you are ultimately responsible for illegal file sharing and copyright violations that may result from having file sharing of any type enabled on your computer.