Increasing numbers of people are being prosecuted for illegally downloading material from the internet as the entertainment corporations panic over perceived lost revenues.

Raheal Mazumder takes a look at copyright infringement on free illegal downloads from P2P sharing networks.

In 1999, Napster became one of the leading online music-downloading services in the world forming a network of over a million users downloading and sharing music free on the web.

However, this phenomenon faced a major crisis, following a complaint from Lars Ulrich, present drummer of the heavy metal group Metallica, who accused Napster of providing an illegal service to millions, downloading music tracks in mp3 format, costing record companies millions.

Having lost the court case, Napster agreed to the proposal set by other record companies to voluntarily ban over 30,000 of its users who downloaded free Metallica songs from the software, and 'sell' music for a set price for each mp3 requested by its users. This was achieved by releasing a new version of 'Napster BETA 6'.

Record companies such as Sony Music and EMI still face the problem of illegal downloading, as other peer to peer file sharing software packages such as LimeWire, KaZaa Media Desktop and Grokster are now being used by internet users as a substitute to Napster.

Back in 2003, a more serious approach to tackling the illegal downloading of music, audio, movies and even software (classified as computer crime) was taken by American authorities, especially the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

Research had shown that users who downloaded free media files could be traced individually via their IP address. As a result, approximately 260 users in the United States were tracked down and have faced law suits.

Subsequently the RIAA have made regular attempts to trace users for copyright infringement. For example, between June and December of 2005 over 7000 people faced lawsuits in America.

Many people believe that the activity of downloading music free off the internet is not illegal; instead they say that they are just 'sharing' music within the 'music community'.

It would appear that there was and still is a battle between record companies and music down-loaders. Record companies and recording artists see the issue as a huge problem.

On 27 July 2005, it was reported that global annual record sales were down from $40 billion (£22 billion) to $33 billion (£19 billion) resulting in a loss of $7 billion (£3 billion) over the last five years. As a result of this, massive redundancies within the music industry were made.

Mistakes, however, do occur with regard to prosecuting individuals allegedly involved in downloading files illegally. The RIAA has been accused of not carrying out their investigations thoroughly enough in respect to this side of computer crime.

For example, a grandmother was accused of illegally downloading music, even though the real culprit was a grand-child who used her PC and the internet. Incidents like this have revealed stark flaws in the enforcement of copyright infringement.

The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) explains: 'It is very difficult to differentiate between adults and children that download files illegally, since identities are easily concealed on the internet. However, authorities are still entitled to pursue legal action'.

In future, it would appear that record companies and the relevant authorities will be concentrating on those who upload songs onto the internet, meaning that down-loaders are becoming less of a target. Due to the huge numbers of people down-loading illegal files from the Internet this is probably a wise priority.

During the final quarter of 2005, questions regarding the RIAA's performance were raised. Doubts were expressed as to whether the association's legal actions were really lowering the number of users downloading free music illegally.

Some figures imply that illegal file sharing during the final quarter of 2005 was much higher than it was in the second quarter. However, recent research from the market research company NPD shows that since the closure of another peer to peer file sharing developer, Grokster, the number of U.S households that downloaded at least one song from an illegal P2P package decreased by 11% from 6.4 to 5.7 million households. In addition to this, the download rate had also fallen by a staggering 33%.

There is some good news for music down-loaders. Downloading music from the internet is totally legal if the file is downloaded from a genuine website, such as one from a major-music retailer or the artist's own website. However, any music downloaded from peer to peer networks is still considered to be an illegal offence.

Tips to help prevent receiving lawsuits from the RIAA

Basically, pay for the music you purchase off the internet or download. That way you are not breaking the law.

Secondly, if you are downloading music illegally, then it advised that you stop. So far the RIAA have only tracked down users who have downloaded over 1000 songs. However, this may soon change.

The bottom line is that packages involving peer to peer file-sharing are causing users to commit copyright infringement, which is against the law. The RIAA are determined to crack down on this type of crime, and will continue to conduct regular batches of lawsuits in future. Who knows, it could be you on their list of targets.


P2P: (Peer to Peer/Person to Person): An Internet activity where users collaborate without the use of any intervening server. Individual users can act as both clients (receiving data from a server) and severs (providing data to the client/user).

RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America): An organisation that represents the United States recording industry, which includes all the major and small recording labels.

Bibliography/Further Reading: Q&A: Will I be sued for music-swapping? Online music lovers 'frustrated'. Metallica Vs Napster, RIAA Files Suit against 784 File Sharers , RIAA - What is the Recording Industry Association of America

Downloading legally - Understanding the RIAA lawsuits, fresh round of lawsuits from the RIAA. 'A Christmas gift from the RIAA'. RIAA vs. 532 IP addresses

Some views from the general public:

'Well I prefer CDs anyway, because I don't like mp3 sound quality. I don't really have much of an opinion on it. I think with all the mainstream stuff it doesn't matter anyway, because bands still make a lots of money whether people download it or not. But, I don't like people who download too much stuff, it makes music seem like it has less value.'
Jordan Muscatello, London

'In one way it is true – bands make a lot of money anyway because they do world tours and other musical activities, but then again I can understand that record companies must be frustrated with losing money as people are downloading for free. Even though people say they are 'sharing' music, they're still downloading it at the end of the day.'
Chris Tomlinson, London

Have you got an opinion regarding this issue? Do you think downloading music, films; etc should be free to everyone or should P2P users pay at least something towards the artist's work?

Please note that the content of this article is the author's opinion and not necessarily that of the BCS.