hink peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing and you immediately think of spotty teenagers swapping illegal virus-laden downloads of movies and music before a court order drops on the doormat to bankrupt their parents. Even the very process of installing a P2P client is laden with danger, many of them riddled with spyware and adware.
Over the past few years and that picture has changed rapidly. Most illegal filesharing networks have either been shut down or cleaned up their acts - Kazaa for example now merely serves as a redirection page to AltNet, a subscription-based site backed by major record labels offering legal downloads. Even the P2P client software is cleaning up its act, although you should still choose your P2P client with care.
Approach with caution
While many P2P networks and clients have either cleaned up their act or found themselves shut down - Morpheus and Kazaa being just two examples - there are still many P2P file sharing clients out there, and even now many of them aren't completely free of add-ons and toolbars that tread a fine line between serving advertisements and compromising your privacy. So what should you be looking for when picking a P2P client?
First and foremost, make sure you download any P2P client software we've mentioned in this feature from the web address we give you, which is typically the P2P client's own homepage. There are numerous examples of dodgy sites offering seemingly legitimate P2P clients that have been altered or doctored to either charge for their use or infect the end user's PC with spyware and adware.
Some P2P clients bundle toolbars that compromise people's privacy, but which are clearly flagged during the installation process. Some programs like BlubsterBitComet allow you to skip these components during the installation process, while others such as BearShare, Shareaza and iMesh install them, but give you the option of disabling them, plus allow you to uninstall them separately from the main program.
Other P2P clients warn you about the software they bundle, but won't function without them installed. Examples here include Kiwi Alpha and Piolet.
One way to protect yourself against dodgy P2P clients is to install the free Web of Trust toolbar for Internet Explorer and Firefox from here - it rates sites red, yellow or green based on their safety and privacy ratings; if your P2P client throws up a red or yellow rating, review it before proceeding with any download.
Why choose P2P?
With these major shortcomings removed, P2P becomes an unbeatable option when looking for an efficient way to share files over the. In traditional forms of internet sharing, a file is stored on a single server and bandwidth must be shared between however many PCs are attempting to access that server at any one time. This is why some files download much quicker than others.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) networking gets around this restriction by taking advantage of multiple computers hosting the same files so more download streams are available, resulting in better performance.
P2P is particularly popular for sharing large files like video and music - hence its poor historical reputation - and while the threat from viruses and spyware remains (don't even think about using P2P without ensuring you're adequately protected first), it's a brilliant way to access and share large files.
All that remains for you to do is choose a P2P network - BitTorrent is our network of choice due to its size and popularity - and suitable client. BitTorrent's own official client - uTorrent - can be downloaded from here and is free from both spyware and viruses. Once you've familiarised yourself with how it works using the annotation and jargon buster below, turn the page to find out more.
Annotation: See how P2P works with uTorrent
A. SELECTED FILES
All torrents are listed here - if Status is set to Seeded, it means the file has been downloaded, and is available for others.
A ratio of less than 1.000 means you've downloaded more than you've uploaded; Availability tells you how many complete copies of the file are available in the current swarm.
C. BANDWIDTH ALLOCATION
Change this to High if you're not using the internet for anything else, or Low if it's interfering with other internet activity. You can also set manual download/upload speeds from here too.
D. FILE STATISTICS
This gives you a graphical representation of which parts of the file have been downloaded, plus which parts are available for download through the current swarm.
Where does copyright law stand in relation to P2P file-sharing?
The actual of file-sharing itself is not illegal, but if you download or share copyrighted material such as music, movies or commercial software then you're breaking the law.
How do I know if a file is legal or not?
Use your common sense. If you don't own the copyright on the file you're thinking of sharing or downloading, find out what the usage restrictions are before attempting to access or share it. It goes without saying that commercial products, like an episode of a favourite US TV show or the latest album by a major band, cannot be downloaded for free.
Can I obtain copyrighted files through P2P legally?
Yes - you'll need to sign up with the P2P network and pay for the copyrighted material you download in the form of a one-off fee (for rental or purchase of the material), or subscription. At present, many sites - including BitTorrent - only offer this service in the US.
Where can I get definitive information about UK copyright law?
Start your search at the UK Copyright Service's (UK(c)CS) web site here. Also take a look at the home of the UK Intellectual Property Office by clicking here.
P2P jargon buster
P2P: P2P is short-hand for "peer-to-peer", a type of network where files are shared directly between two or more PCs. Connections are made through a central server that catalogues where files can be found, but the files themselves are hosted on end-users' PCs for the purposes of file-sharing. Two examples of P2P file-sharing technologies are BitTorrent and Ares.
Client: a program used to connect to a file-sharing service, such as uTorrent for BitTorrent networks.
Peer: a computer on the P2P network that has a partial copy of the file being shared, making that portion available for upload.
Seeder: a computer who has a full copy of the file, but continues to make it available to others to downoload.
Swarm: the collective term for all computers - peers and seeders - who are sharing a file.
Tracker: a server that contains information about files being shared and the computers sharing them. This is referred to frequently by the swarm, plus updated by them to let it know what parts of the file are available from which peer.
Torrent: the file that communicates the tracker's address to the computer, plus contains information about all the parts of the file being downloaded.
Share Ratio: this is calculated by dividing the amount uploaded by the amount downloaded. If the ratio is greater than 1, the user is received more favourably by the rest of the BitTorrent community for uploading more than they've downloaded.
Leech: a computer that has a poor record of sharing files for others - in other words, a share ratio of less than 1. This may be due to circumstance - they've only just joined their first swarm, for example - or it may be a deliberate policy whereby once the user has downloaded the file they want they stop sharing the file.