Campus Life

File Sharing: Fun or Felony?

Part of the appeal of being at college is being able to hop aboard super-fast computer networks. This, of course, opens multiple doors for creative minds that need little sleep. One of the more popular activities is file sharing--downloading songs, movies, and other copyrighted materials from the Web and then creating your own awesome archives to enjoy when you're not watching reruns of The Office on TV while studying for that Bio mid-term.

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Of course, file sharing can be risky business. You may have read about the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) suing 16 Cornell University students for copyright infringement. There are other examples of such litigation, so what's an enterprising collegian to do? Well, here's some very savvy advice:


Wired.com came out with some common-sense guidelines for those interested in file sharing. Here are some highlights:

Education 2.0: The College Student's Guide to File Sharing

By Sean Hollister

College: You finally made it. But now that you're here, how should you spend your first few weeks at school?

By filling up the hard drive of your brand-new Toshiba R500 with loads of music and video files, that's how. By harnessing the full file-sharing power of a high-speed, university-class network.

But how? Is it safe? Legal? Faster than asking your parents to burn a few DVDs and put them into their monthly care package?

Excellent questions -- the mark of a true student. Welcome to File Sharing 101.

How to Get What You Want

Assuming you've got your machine connected to the internet and cleaned of viruses and spyware, it's time to choose a network. Heard of Napster or BitTorrent? Both are peer-to-peer networks through which your computer, equipped with the proper software, can find files to download. The actual file transfers happen between your computer and other computers using protocols that distribute the file-sharing load among all the computers, or "peers," on the network.

There are several networks, and for each one, a wide variety of clients (the software that runs on your computer) that will let you connect and share files. Network choice is important because it determines how much privacy you have and how much you have to share in return for obtaining access. We recommend two: BitTorrent and Direct Connect, plus a third option -- one-click hosting services -- for the truly paranoid.

(Educating yourself about legal issues is an important part of your research. Check the second page of this article for more information on the risks involved before you dive in.)

[Cutting now to legal issues (you can read about hot file-sharing programs directly from the article itself) . . .]

Legal Risks

Legal interpretations may vary about what constitutes legitimate sharing of copyrighted content, and we're not lawyers. Sharing a few music clips with your friends may not violate copyright law, but distributing the latest Hollywood blockbuster to 30,000 other fans almost certainly does. So give some thought to your file sharing before you start. While one-click hosting is fairly private at the moment and darknets keep content away from prying eyes, it's all for naught if your university actively monitors traffic and is determined to shut down peer-to-peer activity.

We recommend you check your college's "acceptable use policy" and similar documents to determine their position on file sharing before engaging in potentially illegal activity, or at least make sure you save three grand, the going rate, in case you get caught.

For the legal perspective, go right to the source: the United States Copyright Office FAQ.

You may also want to read online piracy statements from the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation's handy guide, How To Not Get Sued for File Sharing.

One final word: If you don't think file sharing, or simply downloading your favorite songs from the Web, is no big deal, think again. You have to be careful. Take, for example, the case of Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, who had a judgment levied against her for $222,000 in penalties (!).

Have fun with that lightning-fast Internet connection in your dorm, but ask yourself a question first: "How much am I willing to pay for these songs or movies . . . if I screw up?"

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