Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

In this lesson, students will examine the state of Internet file sharing and copyright law. Building on the homework exercise from Lesson 2, students will decipher the various players who have a vested interest in the heated peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing debate: technological innovators, the entertainment industry, lawyers, courts, educators, and, of course, the file-sharers.

Notes for the Educator

The use of peer-to-peer networks to share music and movies has sparked tremendous controversy in recent years. The recording industry blames P2P file sharing for declining music sales and has responded with extensive advertising, lobbying campaigns, lawsuits against file-sharing companies, and, until recently, lawsuits against individual users of P2P software. After years of negotiation, authorized downloading sites have also emerged, such as iTunes. However, unauthorized file-sharing remains extremely popular. For example, one study found that one third of PCs in the world have Limewire (a popular file-sharing technology that has been targeted in lawsuits) installed. Users of P2P networks argue that the world has changed, that they should be able to use and share music without restriction, and that the recording industry needs to adapt its business models to new technologies. They point to the efforts of some musicians to use the Internet and P2P technologies to reach out to fans and market their works. (See, for example, the "pay what you want" model used by Radiohead for its recent album In Rainbows, or Nine Inch Nails' liberal licensing of its collection Ghosts I-IV.)

Given the heated debate, it is easy to forget that peer-to-peer technology itself is not illegal, nor is using the technology to make fair uses, to share copyrighted materials designated for sharing, or to share materials in the public domain. It is also easy to forget that we have been here before. As we learned in Lesson 3, new copying technologies often spark legal and political controversy as industries based on old technologies struggle to adapt. For example, movie industry representatives famously claimed that videocassette recorders would destroy that industry (former MPAA president Jack Valenti likened VCRs to serial killer "Jack the Ripper"), but in fact VCRs and DVDs opened up new business opportunities and brought new wealth to the industry.

A clearer understanding of the peer-to-peer debate will not only enable students to make informed decisions about their use of peer-to-peer software, but it will also give them a framework for understanding how emerging technology affects commerce, society, and culture – and how individuals can be impacted by the changes.

Objectives for Students

Activity Highlights

The main class exercise requires students to explore the viewpoints of the individuals involved in a true-to-life file sharing controversy.

The students should also be given a significant amount of time to work on the fair use mock trial conducted in Lesson 5. Keep the Trial Guide close at hand to help the students navigate their responsibilities. Be prepared to give the student groups extensive feedback on the Stakeholders Worksheets completed as homework for Lesson 2. Comprehensive feedback should help them make efficient use of class time to refine arguments in preparation for the mock trial.


For the Educator

For the Student (in-class)

For the Student (homework)

Additional Reading

Lesson Activities

  1. (10 minutes) Read the following fictionalized composite RIAA case to your the class and discuss the views of the "players" involved in this real-world scenario:

    A 12-year-old girl in Toledo, Ohio, receives an email from her Internet provider regarding a subpoena. She doesn't understand it, so she ignores it. One year later, her family is formally served with a lawsuit naming her mom as a defendant. The suit alleges that the mother, who was the ISP account holder, illegally downloaded 10 copyrighted music files from a file-sharing network and seeks damages for each song. The plaintiff record companies offer to settle for $6,000.

    • The 12-year-old girl downloaded the songs, but she didn't know she was doing anything illegal. She found the files on a site that was free to access, but there were no warning signs that the bands didn't authorize the site. She's a huge fan of these bands – she owns all of their CDs and just wanted to hear the new songs.
    • The Mom doesn't believe that she should be sued. She can't afford to pay the $6,000 settlement fee, and she can't afford to hire an attorney to fight the case in court. (The attorney she spoke with asked for a $10,000 retainer just to get started.)
    • The plaintiff record companies claim that this is theft from their hardworking artists and that making the mother pay the settlement fee will deter others from illegally downloading copyrighted music from the Internet.
    • Popular Music Artist/Band A, whose music the girl copied, says that band members should be paid for their creative works; fans should buy their CDs and not get away with piracy. Making music is the band's job, and musicians need to be compensated; they're losing money when fans illegally download their music.
    • Popular Music Artist/Band B, whose music the girl copied, has a different perspective and supports music file-sharing technology, even encouraging fans to download its latest album of MP3s for free or for whatever they want to pay. Band B believes P2P file-sharing helps promote its music and encourages an even wider spectrum of music to be heard. Band B also allows its fans to remix its songs as long as the use is noncommercial.
  2. (15 minutes) Start a general class discussion about file-sharing with your students:
    • Could the above scenario be true?
    • Which of the stakeholders is right, if anyone? Why?
    • Are the views of the other stakeholders legitimate? Why or why not?
    • How do the students feel about P2P file-sharing technologies?
    • Is P2P technology itself illegal?
    • Is P2P technology just for music and movie file-sharing? (NASA is using BitTorrent to distribute massive photographs; BitTorrent is used to cheaply distribute the Linux operating systems that are free to users.)
  3. (35 minutes) For the remaining class time, students will work in their trial groups to finalize their presentations.


Students will finish their final trial arguments and questions and prepare for the mock fair use trial of Walt Disney Studios v. Faden ("A Fair(y) Use Tale").

Extension Ideas

Invite a local artist, writer, or musician to speak to your class on how the Internet and technology has impacted his or her artistic work. Also ask students in your class (or students in the school generally) who are artists/creators in their own right to comment on these questions: