Researchers at Penn State and other universities have developed a tool to help educators and researchers find and exchange large academic or scientific files more easily–using the principles most associated with trading music and movies illegally.

But unlike the free “peer-to-peer” (P2P) file-sharing systems that have drawn complaints and lawsuits from the entertainment industry, people who allow data to be exchanged over LionShare can place limits on who can view specific files.

“It all comes down to how people share content and what restrictions they put on the content that they share,” said Mike Halm, director of Penn State’s LionShare project.

The secure, private network is meant for faculty, researchers, and students to share photos, research, class materials, and other types of information that might be not be easily accessible through current technology, Halm said.

Normally, a researcher looking for data would need to conduct separate, time-consuming searches at individual repositories–virtual warehouses where research databases, photos, or other large files can be stored. It also might be difficult to download large data sets or video of, for instance, a deep-sea expedition.

LionShare combines the concepts of P2P file sharing–or exchanging files directly between computers, without the use of a file server–and repository searching into a single search, “like Google-searching the internet,” Halm said.

Fred von Lohmann, an intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said LionShare appears to be a great tool for academics.

But Von Lohmann, who represents a file-sharing service in a copyright infringement suit, warns that LionShare’s closed networks and methods to control access could make it easier to violate copyrights by allowing students to “create a … private sheltered place where people could shop music and movies to their heart’s content” without entertainment companies ever knowing.

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