Communication Currents

The Important Rhetoric of “File Sharing”

June 1, 2014
Digital Communication & Gaming

An important aspect of the debate over the copying and distribution of media content over the Internet concerns its terminology, where the competing terms are “piracy” and “file sharing.” These evocative terms have quite different meanings. The reasons that governments and the media industry prefer the word “piracy” are clear, and conscious efforts have been made to establish it as the de facto term. But what about “file sharing”? Where has this term come from? What is its rhetorical force? And how can it serve as a valuable resource for those who would challenge the current copyright regime’s restrictions on cultural productivity?

“Sharing” and the history of computing 

All new technologies that enable the reproduction of content have aroused consternation and controversy, from the printing press through the photocopy machine, to the double cassette deck, the video recorder, and, of course, the Internet. However, only in relation to computers and the Internet has the word “sharing” been used in the debates over these technologies, suggesting that the origins of the term lie in the digital nature of the practice. Why is this so, and what is the significance of this observation for contemporary debates over file sharing? A cursory glance at the history of computing shows that the concept of sharing is actually deeply embedded in that history, though it has undergone some interesting shifts over the years.

The first appearance of sharing in relation to computers was in the 1950s with the development of time-sharing systems that enabled more than one user to access a computer at the same time. Time-sharing, then, was about the allocation of a scarce resource. As computers shrank and found their way into a growing number of workplaces and universities, the new challenge was how to access data on remote machines. The network solutions presented were known as disk sharing—not because the disk was divided up between users, but because it was shared in the sense of being placed in a kind of commons. This, indeed, was how the first kind of file sharing worked; that is, if a file was shared, it meant a user would have access to that file on the remote computer. Later on, and especially around the meteoric rise of Napster from 1999 until its closure in 2001, file sharing came to refer more specifically to the copying and distribution of files, many of which contained copyrighted material.

What this shows us is that: (1) the use of the word “sharing” in the context of computing has become more metaphorical and has moved further away from its original sense of division into parts; (2) the context of sharing in computing has shifted from one of scarcity of computing resources to one of abundance; and (3) the object of sharing has shifted from hardware to files, corresponding with the evolution of computers from computing machines to devices that produce, analyze, and store information.

The long history of sharing in computing leads me to argue that calling file sharing “file sharing” was quite a natural, if unplanned and unintentional step. This differentiates file sharing from piracy in quite a significant manner: piracy is a metaphor selected by the powerful and imposed upon the weak; “file sharing,” on the other hand, is a term that has emerged bottom-up from the field. 

The (unintentional) rhetoric of “file sharing” 

The opponents of file sharing—both the term and the practices that it describes—take umbrage at the rhetorical force of the phrase. Before appraising their indignation, let us first try to understand something about this rhetorical force. First, and most obvious, sharing is almost universally considered socially desirable. It is a basic social skill that we strive to impart to children. Any practice called sharing thus automatically acquires a positive veneer by virtue of its association with pro-social behavior.

However, I would like to argue that the force of the term file sharing also and importantly lies in the sense of sharing as a type of interpersonal communication, one that implies proximity, openness, and honesty. In this sense, sharing expresses the proper mode of emotional engagement and communication not only between romantic intimates, but also between friends and even colleagues. Moreover, my argument is that this sense of sharing is enacted by the term “file sharing” and helps us understand the opposition to the term among certain quarters. In other words, if the “sharing” in file sharing brings to mind specific forms of distribution, it also expresses a positive and desirable type of attachment between people. As much as sharing is a distributive activity, then, it also is an affective and communicative activity as well.

This is not to say that the hundreds of thousands of people downloading the latest Game of Thrones torrent from one another feel a sense of intimate connection. Nonetheless, it is to say that their behavior is governed by a sense of mutuality and considerateness (i.e., try to upload as much as you download), and it brings into view the many smaller file-sharing communities in which aficionados provide one another with rare music, for instance, or share music files of a higher quality than that provided by legally sanctioned digital music providers such as iTunes and Spotify. Furthermore, in an age of networked publics in which people do not necessarily know all of their Facebook friends and certainly do not personally know all of the people whom they follow and who follow them on Twitter, to insist on physical co-presence as a necessary condition for talking about an interaction between two people as one of “sharing” is surely to miss the point.

A short conclusion 

Given the positive halo around the concept of sharing, it is understandable that those who oppose file sharing should reject the term along with the practice. When they say file sharing is not really sharing, though, may we not retort that it certainly is not really piracy either? More than that, and more significantly, when we call file sharing “file sharing,” we are issuing a critical challenge to the current copyright regime; we are saying something about that which should, under certain circumstances, be held in the commons.

About the author (s)

Nicholas A. John

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Assistant Professor