Page last updated at 08:54 GMT, Thursday, 24 July 2008 09:54 UK

Q&A: Music and file-sharing

Hundreds of thousands of UK net users could soon find a letter on their mat from their net supplier saying their account is being used to illegally share files. The letters are one of the most tangible elements of an anti-piracy plan brokered by the government. Here we explain some of the background to the agreement.

What is file-sharing?

As its name implies it involves using the net to distribute or get hold of data files.

The most popular files being shared online are MP3 music tracks because their small size means they can be uploaded and downloaded quickly.

As broadband speeds have increased the size of files available on file-sharing networks has grown. TV shows and movies are becoming increasingly popular.

Most file-sharing networks are organised on a peer-to-peer basis. This means that they do not have a central store of files. Instead, the files remain on the computers of a network's members.

Anyone downloading a particular file gets it in chunks from all the machines on the network possessing a copy of that music track, video, game or TV show.

Once a person has a copy of a file it usually remains available for others in the network. The more people with a copy of a file the faster it can be spread to others.

There are many file-sharing networks and users typically get hold of a client, which acts like a web browser, that lets them use that network.

Who is file-sharing?

Lots of people. And many are file-sharing perfectly legally.

Many broadcasters and content firms are using file-sharing networks to overcome the inherent problems of using the net to distribute large files such as TV shows and films. Many online game firms use file-sharing systems to distribute updates to players.

However, many people have turned to file-sharing networks to get hold of pirated content - be it music tracks, videos or games. Typically teenagers are the biggest users of file-sharing networks that hold lots of pirated pop music.

Why does the music industry want to stop it?

Because they believe that the growth of file-sharing has cut their profits and is ruining their industry. The music industry, as well as other content makers, argue that anyone who gets hold of a pirated copy of music track, video or game is unlikely to go out and buy a legitimate retail copy.

Critics say the music industry is paying the price for being late to see the impact the net would have on the buying and selling of music. Lacking legitimate places to turn to find music, online fans migrated to file-sharing networks to get hold of pirated tracks.

What does this agreement mean for consumers?

For hundreds of thousands of UK net users it will mean that they get a letter from their ISP telling them that their account has been identified as one used to illegally share files. At the moment that is all it will mean.

So far no UK net firm has pledged to back the BPI's call to cut the net connections of persistent pirates.

How is the music industry targeting file-sharers?

The British Phonographic Industry is monitoring the most popular file-sharing tools and is looking for people who are uploading (i.e. actively sharing) music tracks.

The IP address, or unique online identifier, of the computer that is being used to share tracks can be seen on many of these tools.

IP addresses are distributed by your ISP and so the BPI contacts the ISP which allocated that address, who in turn matches it to the computer, and the account holder.

Have other countries tried this?

There have been a lot of different attempts to curb piracy.

Currently France is on the verge of adopting a "three strikes" law that will see the net connections of persistent pirates unplugged.

In the US the RIAA, which represents record labels, has favoured lawsuits against pirates and has taken tens of thousands of people to court seeking damages.

In Germany the courts are currently debating the legality of using data culled from file-sharing networks to identify and chastise suspected pirates.

Many other nations impose a levy on recordable media on which copies of copyrighted content could be stored.

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