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Programming Windows TCP Sockets in C++ for the Beginner

Helps programmers new to Winsock start programming TCP sockets in C++

There really is not a lot of material on this subject (I believe) that explains the use of
Windows sockets sufficiently enough for a beginner to understand and begin to
program them. I still remember the hassle that I went through trying to find a
proper tutorial that didn't leave me hanging with many questions after I started
programming with them myself.
That was a long time ago now, and it was quite a challenge for me to program my
first application that could communicate with other computers over the Internet
even though my first introduction to sockets was through Visual Basic; a high-level
and very user-friendly programming language. Now that I have long since switched
to the more powerful C++, I rapidly found that the labor I had expended to code
sockets in VB was nothing compared to what awaited!
Thankfully, after many hours searching various web pages on the Internet, I was
able to collect all the bits and pieces, and finally compile my first telnet program in
C++. My goal is to collect all the necessary data in one place; right here, so the
reader doesn't have to recollect all the data over the Internet. Thus, I present this
tutorial in hopes that it alone will be sufficient information to begin programming.
Before we begin, you will need to include winsock.h and link libws2_32.a to your
project in order to use the API that are necessary for TCP/IP. If this is not possible,
use LoadLibrary() to load ws2_32.dll at runtime, or some similar method.
All the code in this article was written and tested using "Bloodshed Dev-C++"; but generally, it should work with any compiler with minimal modifications.
What the Heck are Threads, Ports, and Sockets?
Actually, we can use the word-picture presented to us by the name "socket" in a
similar fashion to illustrate what they are and how they work. In an actual
mechanical socket, you may recall that it is the female, or "receiving" end of a
connection. A "thread" is a symbolic name for a connection between your computer
and a remote computer, and a thread is connected to a socket.
In case I've lost you with all that proper terminology, you might think of a thread as
an actual, physical, sewing-type thread stretched from one computer to the other,
as the common analogy goes. In order for the threads to be attached to each
computer, however, there must be a receiving object that attaches to the threads,
and these are called sockets.
A socket can be opened on any "port"; which is simply a unique number to
distinguish it from other threads, because more than just one connection can be
made on the same computer. A few of these ports have been set aside to serve a
specific purpose. Beyond these ports, there are quite a large number of other ports

that can be used for anything and everything: over 6,000, actually. A few commonly
used ports are listed below with their corresponding services:










Telnet (default)


SMTP (Send mail)


Whois (Query information)


Finger (Query server information)


HTTP (Web pages)


POP (Receive mail)




CLOGIN (Used for IP spoofing)

There are many more ports used for specific purposes that are not shown here.
Typically though, if you wish to use a port that has no specific assigned service, any
port from 1,000 to 6,535 should be just fine. Of course, if instead you want to listen
in on messages sent to and from service ports, you can do that too.
Are you connected to the Internet now? Let's say you are, and you have Internet
Explorer or some other web page service running, as well as AOL or some other chat
program. On top of that (as if the connection wasn't slow enough already) you're
trying to send and receive email. What ports do you think are opened, sending and
receiving data?
Internet Explorer (etc.) sends and receives data via port 80
AOL and other instant messaging programs usually like to hang out in the higher
unassigned ports up in the thousands to be safe from interference. Each chat
program varies, as there is no specific "chat" service and multiple messaging
programs may run at the same time

When you're sending your email, you and the remote mail server are
communicating using port 25
And, when you receive email, your mail client (such as Microsoft Outlook) uses port
110 to retrieve your mail from the mail server
And onward extends the list.
It's not enough just to know what port number we're using, obviously; we need to
know what remote computer/server we're connecting to. Just like we find out the
home address of the people we visit before we get in the car, we have to know the
"IP address" of the host we are connecting to, if we are connecting and not just
listening (a chat program needs to be able to do both).
An IP address is an identification number that is assigned to each computer on the
network, and consists of four sets of digits separated by periods. You can view your
IP address by running ipconfig.exe at the MSDOS prompt.
For the examples shown throughout this tutorial, we will be using what is called the
"loop-back address" to test our chat program without being connected to the
Internet. This address is Whenever you try to make a connection to this
IP, the computer loops the request back to you computer and attempts to locate a
server on the specified port. That way, you can have the server and client running
on the same computer. Once you decide to connect to other remote computers, and
you've worked the bugs out of your chat program, you will need to get the unique IP
address of each to communicate with them over the Internet.
Because we as humans are very capable of forgetting things, and because we
couldn't possibly hope to remember a bunch of numbers for every web site we visit,
some smart individuals came up the wonderful idea of "domain names". Now, we
have neat little names like and that stand for IP
addresses that are much easier to remember than clunky sets of digits. When you
type one of these names in your browser window, the IP address for that domain
name is looked up via a "router", and once it is obtained (or the host is "resolved"),
the browser can contact the server residing at that address.
For example, let's say I call an operator because I can't remember my girlfriend's
phone number (fat chance). So, I just tell the operator what her name is (and a few
other details, but that's not important) and she happily gives me the digits. That's
kind of what happens when a request is made for an IP address of any domain
We have two API that accomplish this task. It's a good idea to make sure and check
to see if whoever uses you program types a domain name instead of an IP address,
so your program can look up the correct IP address before continuing. Most people,
anyway, won't want to remember any IP addresses, so most likely you'll need to
translate domain names into IP addresses before you can establish a connection
which requires that the computer must be connected to the Internet. Then, once
you have the address, you're all set to connect.

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//Return the IP address of a domain name

DECLARE_STDCALL_P(struct hostent *) gethostbyname(const char*);

//Convert a string address (i.e., "") to an IP address. Note that

//this function returns the address into the correct byte order for us so
//that we do not need to do any conversions (see next section)

unsigned long PASCAL inet_addr(const char*);

Byte Order
Just when you thought all this thread-socket stuff was going to be simple and easy,
we have to start discussing byte order. This is because Intel computers and network
protocols use reversed byte ordering from each other, and we have to covert each
port and IP address to network byte order before we send it; else we'll have a big
mix up. Port 25, when not reversed, will not end up being port 25 at all. So, we have
to make sure we're speaking the same language as the server when we attempt to
communicate with it.
Thankfully, we don't have to code all the conversion functions manually; as
Microsoft kindly provides us with a few API to do this as well. The four functions that
are used to change the byte order of an IP or port number are as follows:
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u_long PASCAL htonl(u_long); //Host to network long
u_long PASCAL ntohl(u_long); //Network to host long

u_short PASCAL htons(u_short); //Host to network short

u_short PASCAL ntohs(u_short); //Network to host short
Remember! The "host" computer is the computer that listens for and invites
connections to it, and the "network" computer is the visitor that connects to the
So, for example, before we specify which port we are going to listen on or connect
to, we'll have to use the htons() function to convert the number to network byte
order. Note that after using inet_addr() to convert a string IP address to the required
form, we will be returned the address in the correct network order, eliminating the
need to evoke htonl(). An easy way to differentiate between htons() and htonl() is to

think of the port number as the shorter number, and the IP as the longer number
(which is true an IP address consists of four sets of up to three digits separated by
periods, versus a single port number).
Firing Up Winsock
OK, now that we've finally covered the basics, hopefully you are starting to see light
at the end of the tunnel and we can move on. Don't worry if you don't understand
every aspect of the procedure, for many supplementary facts will be brought to light
as we progress.
The first step to programming with windows sockets (A.K.A "Winsock") is starting up
the Winsock API. There are two versions of Winsock; version one is the older, limited
version; and version 2 is the latest edition and is therefore the version we prefer to
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#define SCK_VERSION1


#define SCK_VERSION2



int PASCAL WSACleanup(void);

//This typedef will be filled out when the function returns

//with information about the Winsock version

typedef struct WSAData









unsigned short


unsigned short


char *



You should only need to call these functions once each, the former when you
initialize Winsock, and the latter when you are finished. Don't close down Winsock
until you are finished, though, as doing so would cancel any connections that your
program has initiated or any ports that you are listening on.
Initializing a Socket
We understand how sockets work now, hopefully, but up until now we had no idea
how to initialize them. The correct parameters must be filled out and passed to a
handy API call that begins the socket (hopefully). In this case, we are returned the
handle to the socket that we have created. This handle is very "handy" and we must
keep it on hand to manipulate the socket's activity.
When you are all finished doing your dirty work, it is considered proper
programming practice to shut down any sockets that you have opened before your
program exits. Of course, when it does, all the ties and connections it has will be
forcibly shut down, including any sockets, but it's better to shut them down the
graceful way with closesocket(). You will need to pass the socket's handle to this API
when you call it.
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//There are many more options than the ones defined here, to see them
//browse the winsock2.h header file


#define SOCK_DGRAM
#define SOCK_RAW

#define AF_INET



SOCKET PASCAL socket(int,int,int);

int PASCAL closesocket(SOCKET);
When creating a socket, you will need to pass the "address family", socket "type",
and the "protocol type". Unless you're doing some special (or odd) work, which is
beyond the scope of this report, you should typically just pass AF_INET as the

default address family. This parameter specifies how the computer addresses will be
There is more than just one type of socket; actually, there are many more. Three of
the most common ones include: Raw Sockets, Stream Sockets, and Datagram
Sockets. Stream sockets, however, are what we are using in this tutorial, since we
are dealing with TCP protocols, so we will specify SOCK_STREAM as the second
parameter to socket().
We're close, so close! We've got the "nitty gritty" stuff done and over with, so let's
move on the more exiting parts of Winsock programming.
Connecting to a Remote Host (Acting as the Client)
Let's try out what we've gone over with a simple program that can connect to a
remote computer. Doing this will help you to understand much better how
everything works, and helps to prevent information overload!
You'll need to fill out information about the remote host that you are connecting to,
and then pass a pointer to this structure to the magic function, connect(). This
structure and the API are listed below. Note that the sin_zero parameter is unneeded
and is thus left blank.
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struct sockaddr_in





in_addr sin_addr;


int PASCAL connect(SOCKET,const struct sockaddr*,int);

I highly recommend that you type in all of the examples in this report by hand,
instead of copying and pasting it into your compiler. While I know that doing so will
slow you up, I am confident and know from experience that you will learn the
process much better that way than if you copy and paste the code.
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//Include the needed header files.
//Don't forget to link libws2_32.a to your program as well

#include <winsock.h>

SOCKET s; //Socket handle

//CONNECTTOHOST Connects to a remote host

bool ConnectToHost(int PortNo, char* IPAddress)
//Start up Winsock
WSADATA wsadata;

int error = WSAStartup(0x0202, &wsadata);

//Did something happen?

if (error)
return false;

//Did we get the right Winsock version?

If (wssadata.wVersion != 0x0202)
WSACleanup(); //Clean up Winsock
return false;

//Fill out the information needed to initialize a socket

SOCKADDR_IN target; //Socket address information

target.sin_family = AF_INET; // address family Internet

target.sin_port = htons (PortNo); //Port to connect on
target.sin_addr.s_addr = inet_addr (IPAddress); //Target IP

s = socket (AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, IPPROTO_TCP); //Create socket

return false; //Couldn't create the socket

//Try connecting...

if (connect(s, (SOCKADDR *)&target, sizeof(target)) == SOCKET_ERROR)

return false; //Couldn't connect
return true; //Success

//CLOSECONNECTION shuts down the socket and closes any connection on it

void CloseConnection ()
//Close the socket if it exists
if (s)

WSACleanup(); //Clean up Winsock

Before you move on, type this code up and give it a try.
Receiving Connections Acting as a Server
Now that you've had a feel for what it's like to connect to a remote computer, it's
time to play the "server" role; so remote computers can connect to you. To do this,
we can "listen" on any port and await an incoming connection. As always, we use a
few handy API calls:

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int PASCAL bind(SOCKET,const struct sockaddr*,int); //bind to a socket
int PASCAL listen(SOCKET,int); //Listen for an incoming connection

//Accept a connection request

SOCKET PASCAL accept(SOCKET,struct sockaddr*,int*);
When you act as the server, you can receive requests for a connection on the port
you are listening on: say, for example, a remote computer wants to chat with your
computer, it will first ask your server whether or not it wants to establish a
connection. In order for a connection to be made, your server must accept() the
connection request. Note that the "server" decides whether or not to establish the
connection. Finally, both computers are connected and can exchange data.
Although the listen() function is the easiest way to listen on a port and act as the
server, it is not the most desirable. You will quickly find out when you attempt it that
your program will freeze until an incoming connection is made, because listen() is a
"blocking" function it can only perform one task at a time, and will not return until
a connection is pending.
This is definitely a problem, but there are a few solutions for it. First, if you are
familiar with multi-threaded applications (note that we are not talking about TCP
threads here), then you can place the server code on a separate thread that, when
started, will not freeze the entire program and the efficiency of the parent program
will thus not be impeded. This is really more of a pain that it needs to be; as you
could just replace the listen() function with "asynchronous" sockets. If I've caught
your attention with that important-sounding name, you can skip ahead to the next
section if you like, but I recommend that you stick with me here and learn the
fundamentals. We'll spiff up our code later; but for now, let's focus on the bare
Before you can even think about listening on a port, you must:
Initialize Winsock (we discussed this before, remember)
Start up a socket and make sure it returns a nonzero value, which signifies success
and is the handle to the socket
Fill out the SOCKADDR_IN structure with the necessary data, including the address
family, port, and IP address.
Use bind() to bind the socket to a specific IP address (if you specified
inet_addr("") or htonl(INADDR_ANY) as the sin_addr section of SOCKADDR_IN,
you can bind to any IP address)
At this point, if all has gone according to plan, you're all set to call listen() and spy
to your heart's content.

The first parameter of listen() must be the handle to a socket that you have
previously initialized. Of course, whatever port this socket is attached to is the port
that you will be listening on. You can then specify, with the next and final
parameter, how many remote computers can communicate with your server at the
same time. Generally, however, unless you want to exclude all but one or a few
connections, we just pass SOMAXCONN (SOcket MAX CONNection) as the final
parameter to listen(). If the socket is up and working fine, all should go well, and
when a connection request received, listen() will return. This is your clue to call
accept(), if you wish to establish a connection.
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#include <windows.h>
#include <winsock.h>


//LISTENONPORT Listens on a specified port for incoming connections

//or data
int ListenOnPort(int portno)
int error = WSAStartup (0x0202, &w); // Fill in WSA info

if (error)
return false; //For some reason we couldn't start Winsock

if (w.wVersion != 0x0202) //Wrong Winsock version?

WSACleanup ();
return false;

SOCKADDR_IN addr; // The address structure for a TCP socket

addr.sin_family = AF_INET;

// Address family

addr.sin_port = htons (portno); // Assign port to this socket

//Accept a connection from any IP using INADDR_ANY

//You could pass inet_addr("") instead to accomplish the
//same thing. If you want only to watch for a connection from a
//specific IP, specify that //instead.
addr.sin_addr.s_addr = htonl (INADDR_ANY);

s = socket (AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, IPPROTO_TCP); // Create socket

return false; //Don't continue if we couldn't create a //socket!!

if (bind(s, (LPSOCKADDR)&addr, sizeof(addr)) == SOCKET_ERROR)

//We couldn't bind (this will happen if you try to bind to the same
//socket more than once)
return false;

//Now we can start listening (allowing as many connections as possible to

//be made at the same time using SOMAXCONN). You could specify any
//integer value equal to or lesser than SOMAXCONN instead for custom
//purposes). The function will not //return until a connection request is

listen(s, SOMAXCONN);

//Don't forget to clean up with CloseConnection()!

If you compile and run this code, as mentioned before, your program will freeze
until a connection request is made. You could cause this connection request by, for
example, trying a "telnet" connection. The connection will inevitably fail, or course,
because the connection will not be accepted, but you will cause listen() to return
and your program will resurrect from the land of the dead. You can try this by typing
telnet "port_number" at the MSDOS command prompt (replace
"port_number" with the port that your server is listening on).
Asynchronous Sockets
Because using blocking functions such as listen() is so impractical and such a pain,
let's go ahead and before we move on discuss "asynchronous" "sockets". I
mentioned these earlier on, and promised you I'd show you how they work.
C++ gives us an advantage here that most high-level programming languages do
not; namely, because we don't have to go to the extra length of "sub-classing" the
parent window before we can use asynchronous sockets. It's already done for us, so
all we really have to do is add the handling code into the message handler. This is
because asynchronous sockets, as you will see, depend on being able to send your
program messages when a connection request is made, data is being received, etc.
This enables it to wait silently in the background without disturbing your parent
program or impeding productivity, as it only communicates when necessary. There
is a relatively small price to pay, too, for it really doesn't take much additional
coding. Understanding how it all works might take a little while, but you'll definitely
be pleased that you took the time to understand asynchronous sockets. It'll save
you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Instead of having to rework and modify all the code that we have written up to this
point, making a socket asynchronous simply requires an additional line of code after
the listen() function. Of course, your message handler needs to be ready to accept
the following messages:
FD_ACCEPT: If your application is acting as the client (i.e., you are attempting to
connect to a remote host using connect()), you will receive this message when a
connection request is being made. Should you choose to do so, the following
message will be sent:
FD_CONNECT: Signifies that a connection has been successfully made
FD_READ: We've got incoming data from the remote computer. We'll learn how to
deal with this later on.

FD_CLOSE: The remote host disconnected, so we lost the connection.

These values will be sent in the lParam parameter of your message handler. I'll show
you exactly where to put them in a minute; but first, we need to understand the
parameters of the API call we'll be using to set our socket to asynchronous mode:
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//Switch the socket to a non-blocking asynchronous one
int PASCAL WSAAsyncSelect(SOCKET,HWND,u_int,long);
The first parameter, obviously, asks for a handle to our socket, and the second
requires the handle to our parent window. This is necessary so that it send the
messages to the correct window! The third parameter, as you can see, accepts an
integer value, for which you will specify a unique notification number. When any
message is sent to your program's message handler, whatever number you specify
here will also be sent. Thus, you would code your message handler to wait for the
identification number, and then determine what type of notification has been sent. I
know this is confusing, so hopefully a glance at the following source code will shed a
little light on the subject:
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1048 //Custom notification message

//This is our message handler/window procedure

LRESULT CALLBACK WndProc(HWND hwnd, UINT message, WPARAM wParam,
LPARAM lParam)
switch (message) //handle the messages
case MY_MESSAGE_NOTIFICATION: //Is a message being sent?
switch (lParam) //If so, which one is it?
//Connection request was made


//Connection was made successfully


case FD_READ:
//Incoming data; get ready to receive

case FD_CLOSE:
//Lost the connection

//Other normal window messages here

default: //The message doesn't concern us

return DefWindowProc(hwnd, message, wParam, lParam);
That's not too bad, is it? Now that our handler is all set, we should append the
following line of code to function ListenOnPort(), after listen():
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//The socket has been created

//IP address has been bound

//Function listen() has just been called

//Set the socket to non-blocking asynchronous mode

//hwnd is a valid handle to the program's parent window
//Make sure you OR all the needed flags

//And so forth
C:\Documents and Settings\Cam>netstat -an
Active Connections

Local Address

Foreign Address


































C:\Documents and Settings\Cam>

If your server is working correctly, you should see under "Local Address" something
like, "," where Port# is the port that you are listening on, in a
LISTENING state. Incidentally, if you forget to use htons() to convert the port
number, you might find a new port has been opened, but it will be on a completely
different port than what you expected.
Don't worry if it takes you a couple of tries to get everything working right; it
happens to all of us. You'll get it with a couple of tries. (Of course, if you try without
avail for a couple weeks, burn this report and forget who wrote it!)
Sending and Receiving Data
Up to this section, all you've got for a server is a deaf mute! Which, not surprisingly,
does not do you a lot of good in the real world. So, let's take a look at how we can
communicate properly and effectively with any computer that decided to chat with
us. As always, a few API calls come to the rescue when we're stumped:
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//Send text data to a remote computer
int PASCAL send(SOCKET,const char*,int,int);

//Receive incoming text from a remote computer

int PASCAL recv(SOCKET,char*,int,int);

//Advanced functions that allow you to communicate exclusively with a

//certain computer when multiple computers are connected to the same server
int PASCAL sendto(SOCKET,const char*,int,int,const struct sockaddr*,int);
int PASCAL recvfrom(SOCKET,char*,int,int,struct sockaddr*,int*);
If you're not using an asynchronous server, then you'll have to put the recv()
function in a timer function, that constantly checks for incoming data not so
elegant of a solution, to say the least. If, on the other hand, you've done the smart
thing and set up an asynchronous server, then all you have to do is put your recv()
code inside FD_READ in your message handler. When there's incoming data, you'll
be notified. Can't get any easier than that!
When we do detect activity, a buffer must be created to hold it, and then a pointer
to the buffer passed to recv(). After the function returns, the text should have been
dutifully placed in our buffer just itching to be displayed. Check out the source code:
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case FD_READ:

char buffer[80];
memset(buffer, 0, sizeof(buffer)); //Clear the buffer

//Put the incoming text into our buffer

recv (s, buffer, sizeof(buffer)-1, 0);

//Do something smart with the text in buffer

//You could display it in a textbox, or use:

//MessageBox(hwnd, Buffer, "Captured Text", MB_OK);

Now that you can receive incoming text from the remote computer or server, all
that our server lacks is the ability to reply, or "send" data to the remote computer.
This is probably the most simple and self-evident process in Winsock programming,
but if you're like me and like to have every step spelled out for you, here's how to
use send() correctly:
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char *szpText;

//Allocate memory for the text in your Text Edit, retrieve the text,
//(see the source code for this) and then pass a pointer to it

send(s, szpText, len_of_text, 0);

For brevity's sake, the above snippet of code is just a skeleton to give you a general
idea of how send() is used. To see the entire code, please download the example
source code that comes along with this tutorial.
On a more advanced note, sometimes the simple send() and receive() functions just
aren't enough to do what you want. This happens when you have multiple
connections at the same time from different sources (remember when we called
listen(), we passed SOMAXCONN to allow the maximum number of connections
possible), and you need to send data to one particular computer, and not all of
them. If you're uncommonly sharp, you may have noticed two extra API below
send() and receive() (extra credit if you did!); sendto() and receivefrom().

These two API allow you to communicate with any one remote computer without
tipping your hand to everyone else that is connected. There is an extra parameter
that accepts a pointer to a sockaddr_in structure in these advanced functions, which
you can use to specify the IP address of any remote computer that you want to
communicate with exclusively. This is an important skill to know if you are building a
full-fledged chat program, or something similar, but beyond giving you the basic
idea of how these functions work, I'll let you figure them out on your own. (Don't
you hate it when authors say that? Usually it's because we don't have the slightest
clue ourselves but really, it shouldn't take much to implement them if you decide
that you need to.)
Some Final Notes
Well, by now you should have a decent understanding of Windows sockets or a
profound hatred of them but at any rate, if you're looking for a much better
explanation than I can give you here, please take a look at the example source code
provided with this article. Practice will do much more for you than reading any
Additionally, I have found that if you try to copy and paste code, or just compiling
someone else's code you found on the Internet, you won't come close to the level of
understanding you will gain if you type in all the examples by hand yourself. A big
pain, I know! But if you take the time to do it, you'll save yourself a lot of trouble in
the long run.
Have fun, and let me know what you think of this article by posting feedback.
This article (not including the accompanying source code) is copyrighted 2006 by
the author, and cannot be modified, sold, and redistributed for personal gain
without prior explicit permission from him. It is provided free of charge for the
benefit of the public. You are allowed, however, to make and distribute as many
copies of it as you like, provided that you do not modify the original content in any
way. Thanks!
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