Legal MP3 Downloading - Illegal MP3 File Sharing

To many people, MP3 is synonymous with 'illegal music'. This is because of the well-publicized legal battle between the record companies and Internet music distribution services like Napster. The old Napster has closed down and a sanitized version which meets the approval of the music industry has taken its place. But MP3 player music files are still widely available for download.

To clarify the issue, let's start by saying that there is nothing illegal about MP3 files. It is simply a file format for audio files. What the music companies object to is file sharing - something that is simplified by the small file sizes of MP3s.

Files can be shared over the Internet by connecting to a peer to peer (P2P) network. This is a network of computers which do not have a centralized hub. Each computer on the P2P network has access to files on every other computer on the network, so files can be 'exchanged', although usually not on a one-to-one basis.

There is no charge for using these P2P networks, so MP3 music files (as well as any other type of computer file) can be freely exchanged. This is what the music companies object to - if music fans can get the latest songs for free, why should they buy them?

By and large, the concerns of the music companies are justified. CD sales have fallen since the popularity of the Internet. But is the Internet to blame? Maybe not. Music fans claim they are justified in trading music files because the quality of CDs has gone down over the past 10 or 15 years. A commonly heard argument is that commercially released CDs often have only two or three good tracks on them, with the rest of the songs being 'filler'.

The music industry seems to have acknowledged this argument. Music services like Apple iTunes Music Store now allow users to buy individual songs and download them to their computer. Songs which are available from the iTunes Music Store are encoded with digital rights management (DRM) which places some restrictions on how the songs can be used. For example, there is a limit to the number of times songs can be burned to CD, and songs may not be broadcasted to more than five computers at a time.

The iTunes Music Store is very popular - more than one billion songs have been sold since they started operating in 2003. It has not stopped the P2P networks, however. They are still as popular as ever and account for a significant amount of MP3 distribution. Most of these (unlike Napster) are decentralized and cannot be shut down by legal action.

Napster was an easy target because it was a company that had employees and offices. Most P2P networks have no such organization - they are simply a community of computer users using the same software.

Nevertheless, the legality of downloading copyrighted material such as MP3 music files needs to be considered. It is a murky area - some countries allow it and some countries try to control it.

In the United States, the Recording Institute Association of America (RIAA) is lobbying strongly for laws against MP3 music file trading in particular and P2P networks in general.

Some countries in Europe have outlawed the use of P2P networks for sharing copyrighted material. However, not all members of the European Union are in agreement about this issue.

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