Caution! Music & Video Downloading
By Russell Shaw
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-7645-7564-3
Chapter One Direct Downloading or File Sharing: Making the Right Choices for Efficiency and Safety
In This Chapter
Downloading 101: Where to start getting music and videos
Using typical file-sharing and direct downloading sites
Understanding the risks of file sharing and direct downloading
Using FTP sites and major search engines
Choosing between file sharing and direct downloads
Downloading music and video, in its popular form, has been around only a few years and is still evolving. It has little in common with other forms of trading files because you never know what you're going to get. Downloading music and video from the Internet can be great fun and very exciting, but you've got to be savvy to protect yourself. This chapter looks at the various ways you can download files, the sites that offer files for download or sharing, and the risks and rewards of file sharing and downloading.
Downloading Music and Video Files
You've downloaded files already, whether you know it or not. When you view Web pages, you're downloading files. When you put a floppy disk or CD-ROM in your computer and copy files to your hard drive, you're downloading files. When you upgrade your software, you're downloading files. When you check your e-mail, you're downloading files.
There are few activities as ubiquitous and yet as mysterious as downloading orsharing files. It's ubiquitous because everyone who uses a computer does it, and it's mysterious because few people really understand the risks they're taking or how to protect themselves.
But you don't have to be a geek or a computer whiz to have fun. Computers are finally becoming as easy to use as refrigerators, washing machines, or microwave ovens; just switch them on, and use your favorite settings to perform your tasks. With the right information, you can be safe and have fun too. I'll start by defining the top two methods for downloading music and video files from the Internet.
File Sharing versus Direct Downloading
First, a few definitions. Downloading is the act of getting a file; uploading is the act of sending a file. Direct downloading means getting a file whole (often by paying for it), while file sharing is the act of trading files in small bits and pieces with other folks (often at no cost to you). When you listen to tracks from an Internet radio station, the file is streamed to you (as in streaming audio or streaming video, meaning it plays back on your player software without the entire file being completely downloaded and you don't get to save it). Listening to streaming music is not the same as downloading or file sharing.
Whatever way you get a music or video file, you are copying bits to your computer: in RAM memory, to your hard drive, or burned onto a CD or DVD. How you copied those bits is not as important as where you got those bits, because there are risks associated with each file-sharing or direct-download site.
These are the primary risks:
* Security issues. Does the file contain viruses, worms, or spyware? Will the file crash your system, destroy your data, or talk about you behind your back (communicate with its maker without you knowing)? * Legal issues. Is the file an illegal copy (stolen goods), or do you have the right to possess and play back the file? If the file is legal, what limitations does your contract impose? * System issues. Is your system prepared to handle the file with enough hard drive space, processing power, RAM, and the appropriate player software to run the file? Depending on compression or lack thereof, 1 MB a minute is an average time/memory ratio for a downloaded file, but this ratio can be much larger. So, if you have 500 downloaded songs of four minutes apiece, that's 2 GB right there. * Quality issues. Is the file corrupted or of poor quality? On some digital music files, poor quality reveals itself in hissing and skipping. Did you get what you paid for (if you did pay for it)?
Some free (and mostly illegal) download sites list the file size of all tracks available for download. You will notice some differences in available files for identical tracks. Substandard music files can be smaller in size than their superior counterparts. That can be because the person making the file available for download set up a tape recorder next to their PC, played the track "over the air" and into a PC microphone, transferred it to their PC's music directory, from where it was made available for download.
You can mitigate your risks by learning all you can about the two main ways to get music and video files (file sharing or direct downloading) and by finding and using sites that you can depend on. A more detailed discussion of risks is provided later in this chapter.
Typical File-Sharing and Direct-Download Sites
Finding file-sharing and direct-download sites is fairly easy, and you've probably heard of a few from your friends. I'll take a look at a couple of the most popular of these sites and see what they have in common.
File sharing on Kazaa
Kazaa can be found at kazaa.com. At this Web site, you'll find the current versions of Kazaa. As of this writing, versions 2.7 (free, supported by ads and pop-ups) and 2.6. (for $29.95, without ads or pop-ups) are available. Running on both a PC and a Mac, the Kazaa software is a desktop application that allows you to connect to other computer users and search for and trade files. It comes with the Kazaa Media Desktop Interface that helps you search the Web for files.
The Kazaa software uses peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to allow you to communicate with other Kazaa users and share files.
For a detailed discussion of P2P, please see Chapter 7.
The term P2P primarily indicates that you are connecting to other computers directly instead of connecting through a central server. The files you search for and download come from other users of the system and are not stored in some server at Kazaa headquarters. Besides making the system more practical, this strategy has some positive legal implications for Kazaa.
Interestingly, the Kazaa Web site mentions that some users are automatically designated as Supernodes, meaning that they serve an important function for other users by storing local lists of files offered for sharing by all users "near" them, based on the fact that the Kazaa software detected that they have a "modern computer and a broadband connection."
According to the Kazaa site, being automatically designated a Supernode is harmless to your computer, and that's true under some circumstances. Still, as you will learn in Chapter 9, you may be vulnerable to detection by connection-sniffing software used by music industry organizations looking for copyright violators.
There can also be fundamental issues of system performance and fairness. Having a utility such as Kazaa on your desktop and trading files with it uses up some of your connection bandwidth and computer memory, slowing your system down. Also, when someone else is using your computer and bandwidth without paying for it, it seems a little unfair. And if it's happening to your work computer and connection, your boss may not appreciate it.
What Kazaa does for you
Kazaa provides software that allows you to make P2P connections to other users of the same software across the Internet, and the software has search features to help you find the files you crave. When you find a file you want, you can download it and play it using Kazaa's software.
That's about it. It doesn't sound like much when it's put this way, but there's really nothing magical about being able to search for a file, find it, download it, and play it. What the file-sharing sites really try to offer is ease of use, security, anonymity, safety, quality, low (or no) cost, and so on, all lumped under the heading of "user experience."
In Chapter 3, you'll find a more detailed look at the similarities and differences between the major file-sharing sites and how they stack up in key attributes.
Direct downloading on Musicmatch
Direct-download sites such as Musicmatch differ from file-sharing sites primarily in that they store files on a central server from which you can search and download. You can find Musicmatch at musicmatch.com. Like Kazaa, Musicmatch is a desktop software application for downloading and playing files (currently Musicmatch Jukebox 9.0, with new versions released every 3 to 6 months), but the software connects directly to the Musicmatch server, searches for files on it, and downloads from that server. The basic player software and jukebox are free (currently you can get a Plus version with more features for $19.99), but individual tracks are 99 cents, and whole albums are $9.99.
The Musicmatch software helps you search for and find tracks, but also comes with a special matching feature that helps you find new music you might like. It plays whole files for you, but it also functions as an Internet radio appliance, allowing you to listen to streaming audio. It also allows you to store your own CDs in a library file. With this function, you can create playlists and classify the songs you want to listen to by style of music, or even by individual artist.
Like many direct-download sites, the Musicmatch software is free but the tracks cost money. You might think that is a disadvantage, but sometimes, if the price is right, paying for something has serious benefits. The music tracks available for purchase are likely to have been professionally prepared by the artist's record company. However, in the rare event that you have downloaded a clunky file of poor sound quality, you can ask for your money back.
In Chapter 2, the major direct-download sites are reviewed and issues like this discussed in more detail.
Other Ways to Download Music and Video
The terms upload and download are synonymous with sending and receiving, respectively. So when you upload a file, you send it or copy it from your computer to another computer or to a disk. And when you download a file, you retrieve it from another computer or disk and place it on your own computer. With that in mind, file sharing and direct downloads are not the only ways to find and download music and video. If you have a friend who happens to have a track you want, your friend could do any of the following:
* Copy it to a CD, DVD, or even a floppy disk, and give it to you * E-mail it to you * Post it to a Web site and give you the URL * Upload it to an FTP site for you to download
Music and video files are just like any other file type; they can be copied and passed around quite easily. But there are still the same concerns about legality, quality, security, playability, and size. Just because your friend has a track doesn't mean that it is legal, free of viruses, or playable on your player.
And since music and video files are often large, especially if they are high quality, fitting the track on a floppy disk or sending it by e-mail may be difficult. If you are attempting to redistribute a 5 minute long, 5 MB music file, that could be bigger than your e-mail service provider allows. The file will also be several times the size of the 1.44 MB capacity of most 2-side, double-density floppy disks.
Getting files by disk or e-mail
You probably already understand how to copy a file to a floppy or burn it to a CD. And e-mailing files as attachments is deceptively simple as well; in addition to the fact these files may be too large to send, you should be sure that you don't send so many files or such large files that you overload your recipient's mailbox. Plus, if your recipient has a slow dial-up connection, it may take him or her a long time to download the files you send.
Web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo! and Hotmail offer much more mailbox space than they once did; however, personal mailboxes on other services often still have a 5 to 10 MB limit per message.
If you want more details about copying files and creating CDs, there is more information in Chapter 10.
Finding files and FTP sites with a search engine
You can also use the major search engines to find music files and anonymous FTP sites that offer music for download. Follow these steps to use Google to find sites that offer music and video files.
1. Go to the Google main page at google.com. If you've not used the Google search engine before, you will find it a very good resource for searching the Web. 2. Type Finding MP3 files in the Google search field, and click Google Search. You'll get a list of sites that help you find MP3 files. The ones you're looking for are search engines specializing in MP3s. For example, consider MP3search at mp3search.com. Figure 1-1 shows this site.
In addition to these steps, you can use Google's search box to directly look for files by extension. If you type in, for example, "Tom Petty" and "MP3" (in quotes), Google will dish up a search results page likely to include several MP3 files available for direct download.
The difference between this site and file-sharing or direct-download sites is that you are not required to buy anything or install any software to use it (although it does offer a program called GetRight for $20 that helps you download tracks more efficiently, but it's not required). Your browser does all the work.
You can also use search engines to help you find anonymous FTP sites. Logging in to an FTP site is done with an FTP client, such as CuteFTP or WS_FTP, but usually you can make your browser work as an FTP client. All you have to know is the FTP hostname (such as ftp.bigtip.com) and a username and password for the site. If the FTP site allows anonymous access, you can usually use "anonymous" as the username and your e-mail address as the password. Even a fake e-mail address will often work.
Figure 1-2 shows the Wicked Downloads site (wickeddownloads.com), which has a variety of links to FTP sites. Note the disclaimer about the files not being verified and also about anonymous FTP sites commonly requiring uploads for the privilege of downloading. You have no guarantee that the files you're downloading are legal or free of viruses, so caveat emptor.
Risks of File Sharing and Direct Downloading
As was discussed earlier in this chapter, you encounter five categories of risks anytime you share files or download them directly: security, legal, system, quality, and sites that sell your registration information to third parties who may spam you.
These legal and quality risks are present no matter how you acquire files, because in most cases you can't tell what's in the file by name, and after you open a file (double-click or play it back), it's usually too late then. In fact, some files, on some operating systems, can do their damage even without being opened. The following sections look at the risks in order of immediacy and try to quantify the risks in terms of the damage that's possible.
The first risk you face, whenever copying a file to your computer, is that the file may contain a virus that could cripple your system or destroy your data. This is not necessarily the biggest risk you face, just the most immediate one. Running anti-virus software can mitigate this risk by examining the newly copied file for virus "signatures." However, if a virus is brand new, your anti-virus software won't have the appropriate signature in its database yet.
So, to prevent your system data from being lost, always back up your files, especially critical data files. You can reload your operating system and software applications, but data that hasn't been backed up can be very time-consuming and expensive to recover (if it can be recovered at all).
On your hard drive, the files that make your computer work are the operating system (OS) and software applications. You should have the original disks that came with your system and any software you bought, so you can reload your OS and applications if they get destroyed. But you need to back up data files. You can do this in several common ways: copy data files to floppy disks, burn files to CD, copy files to a tape backup, or copy files to an online backup site. How frequently should you do this? If you use your computer only a little or place a low value on your files, perhaps you should back up your files once or twice a month. If you use your computer every day and place a high value on your files, perhaps you should do a backup twice a day. And make sure that you become familiar with procedures for restoring lost files; some automated backup software is very easy to use for backups, but difficult or confusing for restoring files.
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