An Ethical Evaluation of Peer-to-Peer File Swapping
The last few years has seen an explosion in the use of the Internet as a means for exchanging, free of charge, digital media by way of Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing technologies. Initially, the practice was primarily limited to the swapping of music, in the form of MP3 files. The pervasiveness of broadband, the advent of newer file types, and the creation of more sophisticated technologies has subsequently made possible the exchange of other types as well – including movies, television shows and software. Again, for free.
In this paper, we will explore the ethical considerations of this practice as it relates to Intellectual Property (IP) – whether protected by copyright law or not. We will concentrate primarily on music, but where appropriate, other media will be considered, as many of the issues are common across the different types.
Taking a global perspective, one must keep in mind that the term “copyright” is not universally defined, accepted, or enforced. We must therefore use the term with the United State’s definition as a basis. However, absent U.S. law, we must also consider the creator’s intent as it relates to the distribution and use of his or her work. This exploration will lead us to a universal position – one that claims that the wide-scale, free exchange of Intellectual Property by means of P2P technology is unethical.
The P2P model gained wide scale notoriety with the success of Napster in late 1999. Almost overnight, P2P and Napster became household words. There are essentially two variations of the P2P model – the Napster model and the Gnutella model. Both follow the fundamental principle of P2P sharing – individual hosts interact with one another when transmitting information. Intermediary servers have no role – information does not pass through them and the files are not stored there. This is an important aspect because it means there’s no central authority controlling what is transmitted where – ultimately, only the user’s hosts are involved in the transfer transaction.
There is one key distinction between the two models. Napster does store a listing of what users are sharing which files and provides the appropriate client connection points. This is to facilitate searching – users wishing to know who has what simply ask the Napster server. The Napster server searches it’s own index on behalf of the user. When a file of interest is located, the Napster server provides the connection points and the peer hosts engage in conversation.
Gnutella’s model has no such central directory or index server. Instead, Gnutella (and others) builds a web of hosts, each communicating with one another – not only when it comes time to transmit files, but search requests as well. Therefore, it is argued, this model merely contributes to user interaction with one another and plays no role when it comes to the file being...