Peer-to-peer file sharing, also known as “P2P,” is a method in which Internet users can share their media files, be it music, movies, or games, through an installed software. This software, also dubbed as a “client,” is responsible for searching and connecting to other connected computers. Therefore, users linked to each other through their computers connected to the Internet are called peers.
An overview: Napster
P2P gained popularity with Napster, a central server-based peer-to-peer software initially released in 1999. It was one of the most popular innovations in the late 90s, as it had 25 million users with access to 80 million songs. Each computer was searched for files and indexed on the central server. This allowed Napster to provide search results for a user who wanted to download a file. Only music files could be shared among computers, which was later improved in the next generation of file sharing clients.
This file sharing client was a hit, especially for music lovers who wanted to obtain copies of their favorite songs. People were eager to share their music via Napster, without thinking of the possible legal implications when it came to copyrights. It must be noted that this kind of file sharing was free, which means that the artists and recording companies did not get a royalty for each copy that was shared (or duplicated) across networks.
Some people justified their use of Napster. They saw it as a means to have digital versions of their physical copies, since ripping at that time was not common practice to most music collectors, and the smooth transition from cassette to CD was still in the works. Those who were looking for rare tracks found Napster to be sent from heaven. Live tracks, exclusive releases and other versions could be found there.
The company was eventually sued for copyright infringement, and was ordered to shut down in 2001. It tried to sustain its popularity and reopened as a paid service.
It was followed by user-based Gnutella and Kazaa as the second-generation incarnations. There were significant differences in the process of file sharing through these clients. The limitation on mp3 files was a thing of the past, as other files could also be downloaded across the network. Also, instead of connecting to a central server like Napster, these two clients allowed users to connect to each other remotely to facilitate file transfer. It was also during the height of popularity of these platforms that adware became a threat to users. Malicious software was bundled in some files, which could wreck havoc on computers. Neither platform lasted long on the scene.
The current P2P model
These were followed by BitTorrent, now the preferred platform for P2P file sharing. This file sharing model is different from the previous methods mentioned earlier. The bit parts of the files can be sourced across networks instead of finding the complete file in a network. This sharing method makes the download process faster, because pieces of the files come from various sources. The files are indexed on a site, which is then loaded to the BitTorrent client.
File sharing has evolved through the years, but is still hampered with similar issues that have caused the demise of Napster. With the copyright infringement claims and other legal issues that most torrent sites face today, a bright future for file sharing is still hanging by a thread.