File sharing is the practice of making files available for other users to download over the Internet and smaller networks. Usually file sharing follows the peer-to-peer (P2P) model, where the files are stored on and served by personal computers of the users. Most people who engage in file sharing are also downloading files that other users share. Sometimes these two activities are linked together. P2P file sharing is distinct from file trading in that downloading files from a P2P network does not require uploading, although some networks either provide incentives for uploading such as credits or force the sharing of files being currently downloaded.
File sharing (such as with the Gnutella and Napster networks) grew in popularity with the proliferation of high speed Internet connections, relatively small file size and high-quality MP3 audio format. Although file sharing is a legal technology with legal uses, many users use it to download copyrighted materials without explicit permission: copyright infringement or "piracy". This has led to attacks against file sharing in general from some copyright owners.
There has been great discussion over perceived and actual legal issues surrounding file sharing. In circumstances where trading partners are in different countries with different legal codes, there are significant problems to contend with. What if a person in Canada wishes to share a piece of source code which, if compiled, has encryption capabilities? In some countries, a citizen may not request or receive such information without special permission.
Throughout the early 2000s, the entire file-sharing community has been in a state of flux. In the year 2000, there was speculation over how seriously record companies and the Recording Industry Association of America would strike the file-sharing community because of its limits compared to more traditional forms of media. However, the communities suffered strain as record companies and the RIAA tried to shut down as much of it as possible. Even though they have forced Napster and Grokster into cooperating against copyright violations, they are fighting an uphill battle since the community has flourished and produced many different clients based on several different underlying protocols. The third generation of P2P protocols, such as Freenet, are not as dependent as Napster is on a central server; and as they encrypt the shared data, it is much harder to shut down these systems through court actions. Another attempt (used by the maintainers of KaZaA) is to change the company's organization or country of origin so that it is impossible or useless to attack it legally. To date, file sharing in Canada is somewhat legal, though not completely so. The uphill battle also extends to the legal actions taken by the RIAA and motion picture counterpart MPAA against individuals using file-sharing programs to distribute material protected by copyright. Ambiguity in the interpretation of copyright law has been a major factor contributing the lack of successful enforcement by the Intellectual Property owners. In Electra v. Perez for example, the Court ruled that the act of making such files available for distribution equated to infringement of the works involved. In the more recent UMG v. Lindor, Judge David G. Trager ruled that the RIAA would be required to prove that actual distribution (sharing) occurred. Should this case go to trial in 2007, it will likely set a precedent for further RIAA and MPAA actions.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a donor-supported group which seeks to protect and expand digital rights. Its activities include litigation, political lobbying, and public awareness campaigns. The EFF has vocally opposed the RIAA in its pursuit of lawsuits against users of file sharing applications and supported defendants in these cases. The foundation promotes the legalization of peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted materials and alternative methods to provide compensation to copyright holders
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