UK Legislation and File Sharing

Published in a computer related journal assuming basic computer knowledge.

Shonak Nathwani

Figure 1: Lord Mandelson and the Digital Britain Bill (Online)


The problem of file sharing is widespread across the world, with creative industries seeking to put an end to the illegal sharing of their content. The issue facing industries is trying to recover their lost revenue – but this cannot be done without government intervention. The vast number of people who violate current legislation poses a significant problem for the government to try and resolve. This article explains the history of how file sharing changed the internet, and analyses the feasibility of potential measures and legislation implementation that the UK government are undertaking.


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UK Legislation and File sharing

There is little denying that the way we use the internet on a daily basis has transformed our lives. The fact that we can communicate, learn and explore the wonders of the World Wide Web with just a few mouse clicks has made this remarkable technology an embedded part of our day to day doings.  Yet, our thirst for digital content, varying from music and movies, to games and applications, has resulted in an enormous upsurge in the illegal sharing of these protected works through this internet technology. The authors of copyrighted material have expressed their concern that their revenue from these works has been significantly impacted as a result. While the effect of the file sharing activity upon these authors of copyrighted material is not entirely conclusive, the British government are attempting to introduce effective policies to try and uphold the copyright law, and protect authors of shared content from further growth in Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing. In this article, I will investigate the situation of file sharing in the UK, and also analyse how persistent sharers may expect to be prosecuted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as well as other legislation, in the future.

The earliest form of file sharing gained popularity in 1998. Released under the name Napster, and developed by Shawn Fanning (an American university student at the time), the service offered users P2P music sharing. The term ‘Peer-to-Peer’ refers to the way in which content is exchanged. Napster operated a system where the user’s computer program connects to a central host (i.e. the Napster servers). The user could choose what song they wanted to download by searching for it in the application. The Napster server would scan through its entire index of all songs under the search criteria and initiate the transfer between the user and a remote Napster peer. The sharing was sustained by the requirement that every user of the software would be required to upload their music collection to other peers. This type of sharing is known as a centralised P2P network, that is, that Napster only provided the matchmaking of peers through access to a main server, but not hosting the music files themselves. In “February [2001], Napster’s file sharing system and Web Site attracted 17 million users in the US” (Ingram, 2001) alone, but just a few months later, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against the company, and it was forced to shut down due to a court injunction.

The legacy that Napster left behind was enormous. Many more P2P websites launched in the early 2000s as a result, the most prominent being eDonkey, Kazaa, and LimeWire. However, a new generation of P2P file sharing was beginning taking hold amongst users. The development of the BitTorrent protocol improved the availability, integrity, and ease of access of shared content.  Being a decentralised network, BitTorrent relies on every user having a piece of the file to be downloaded and sharing those pieces amongst each other until everyone has the complete download. Each user downloads a client onto their computer, and for each shared file they wish to download, they must first download a small file called a “torrent” that communicates with a “tracker”. The tracker finds other users who have parts of the file, and then “seeds” (uploads) them to the user’s client, which assembles these file fragments together. Unlike the original protocol Napster used, BitTorrent allows simultaneous download of the shared file from other users in possession on the file, meaning transfer speeds are greatly improved compared to Napster.

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The explosion in the number of people using these methods of file sharing over the past decade have caused the British government to attempt to pass legislation in curbing it’s use. But research undertaken by the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy found that “at least seven million people” (Telegraph, 2009) illegally download content. To perhaps demonstrate this fact, a website named the “ITunes Registry” was launched to store usage statistics of 5 600 users who volunteered to upload their information. Research for a blog on the internet (Appendix II) found that on average, 64% of the songs that ...

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