Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What You Need to Know About Downloading Music Online

This article appeared on Kim Komando's Web site and I think it really sums up what everyone needs to know about downloading music over the Internet. It is good information for the layman, but also provides some insight and a few useful tools to do it legally and sucessfully. Let me know if it helps any of you:

Can I Really Download Music Online for Free?

I get a lot of questions about downloading music. People hear they can get it for free using certain programs. While that is true, it's not wise.  The programs in question are peer-to-peer (P2P) applications. These can also be known as torrent programs. Torrent is the file format used by these programs to start downloads.  Peer-to-peer file sharing is a sensitive topic. On one hand, it is an excellent tool for distributing files. Some paid music services use it, for example. However, it's mostly associated with illegally downloading copyrighted material, or piracy.

Peer-to-peer file sharing was popularized in the late 1990s. A central server hosts file-tracking information. The files themselves are transferred directly between users' computers.
The central server doesn't take any of the transfer load. That allows more people to download files at the same time. Theoretically, it also means faster downloads.
In a traditional setup, a server would store the download files. It could handle only so many transfers simultaneously. Also, it might be on a slow network connection. This reduces the download speed.  With peer-to-peer, everyone is uploading, in addition to downloading. Therefore, a downloader could be receiving file pieces from numerous locations. The peer-to-peer program assembles the pieces.  This isn't particularly efficient with a small number of people. However, in most cases, hundreds or thousands of people are sharing a file. P2P speeds things up considerably.  The two ground-breaking examples were Audiogalaxy (1998) and Napster (1999). Both were used primarily for sharing music files. The use of the compact MP3 format helped.  Unfortunately, most of the file sharing was illegal. The music was generally copyrighted. And the artists weren't being compensated.

Eventually, the Recording Industry Association of America sued to stop Audiogalaxy and Napster. However, the damage was done. Countless other file-sharing services appeared.
In the last 10 years, these have evolved. The adoption of broadband accelerated downloads. Today, file sharing includes movies and software. A movie can be downloaded in less than a few hours. Sometimes, it takes only a few minutes.  The upside is that you can get content for free. All you need is a peer-to-peer client. And a fast Internet connection is helpful. There are major downsides, however.

First of all, such downloads are still illegal. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in 1998. It makes copying and sharing copyrighted information illegal in all cases.
That is true even if it is not for-profit. Technically, even giving someone an old-fashioned mix tape is illegal. However, attention is primarily focused on computer file sharing.
Between 1998 and 2008, the RIAA sued over 20,000 people. Some were mass copyright infringers. Others were parents whose kids shared songs online. In some cases, children were sued.

Most cases were settled for a few thousand dollars. However, some people fought the RIAA.  They lost, and judgments ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In 2008, the RIAA said it would stop suing individuals. Instead, it brought pressure on Internet service providers. ISPs will drop customers who are moving copyrighted material.  Sometimes that shutoff is permanent.

Also, illegal file sharing is technically theft across state lines. That could involve the FBI. So, legally, sharing copyrighted material is NOT a good idea.
There are also security problems. The "free" files available could include viruses. Running security software doesn't always help.  Hiding viruses in shared files is a popular tactic for hackers. Those file could reach thousands of people. Statistically, some computers are going to get infected.

Also, when you share files, your computer is highly visible. Hackers can trace your peer-to-peer connection. They will attack your firewall, trying to get in. Even after you finish downloading, your computer will be vulnerable.

Free content is nice. But obtaining it illegally and dangerously is not smart. If you want safe, free media, there are other options.

The Creative Commons license was partially developed in response to the DMCA. It sets up certain guidelines for media sharing and usage. Anything offered under the Creative Commons is free for non-commercial use.

Of course, little mainstream media is released that way. If you see new, mainstream content for free, it probably is pirated. If it is legal, there will be information provided to that effect.
Some reputable sites do have free content. Often this will include advertising. Or it will be a loss leader to boost sales. If you are looking for free, and safe, media, start here:
Free music:
Free videos:
Free books:

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