Everybody’s doin’ it

Are Americans down on downloading?

The music industry’s fondest hopes might actually have come true: The much-publicized lawsuits against those who illegally “share” copyrighted music have slowed online music piracy, say the authors of two independent studies released this week.

The first, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is dramatic, though it comes with an asterisk. It required respondents to be honest about an activity that most now understand is unlawful. And, for legal reasons, Pew researchers did not include data from minors, though studies say most school-age kids see nothing wrong with filching tunes.

Among adults, the Pew found that the number who admitted to downloading fell by more than 50 percent between spring and fall.

Of the 1,358 Internet users polled in November and December, 14 percent fessed up to unauthorized file-sharing. During a survey of the same size conducted in March, April and May, 29 percent acknowledged trading copyrighted files.

The second study, from comScore Media Metrix, didn’t rely on respondents’ candor: It measured actual use of four popular file-sharing programs from U.S. computers.

In each case, contrasting figures for November 2003 and 2002, use was down – between 9 and 59 percent.

Lee Rainie, the Pew project director, attributes the falloff in illegal downloading to the 382 lawsuits the Recording Industry Association of America has filed since September against those it suspects of sharing copyrighted music.

The music industry blames downloading for its moribund album sales, which have declined by 31 percent in the last three years. An August report by Forrester Research estimated that file-sharing was robbing the business of $700 million annually.

ComScore found that in November, 15 percent fewer U.S computers were running Kazaa, the most popular peer-to-peer file-sharing application, than in November 2002. Use of WinMX, another file-sharing site, was down 25 percent, BearShare was down 9 percent, and Grokster was down 59 percent.

“The lawsuits are having a significant effect on behavior here,” said Graham Mudd, a comScore analyst.

Eric Garland, chief executive officer of BigChampagne.com, isn’t so sure.

What the Pew study missed, Garland said, is that file-sharing always peaks in the spring. Last April saw the most users since BigChampagne started monitoring in 2000.

Garland expects that the numbers will break records again this spring as people realize that the RIAA litigation is aimed only at mega-users, and that unless they pass along music as well as take it, the likelihood of getting caught is negligible.

And with all those new holiday MP3 players to load up, the temptation to harvest free music is hard to resist.

“Nobody’s ever gotten into trouble for downloading anything,” Garland said. “You really are anonymous. I suspect (for now) people are governed by fear.”