File Swappers Find New Ways to Trade Tunes

Recording industry lawsuits against file swappers and P-to-P (peer-to-peer) software companies may be forcing Internet users onto informal networks to exchange songs and videos, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

A Pew survey of 1421 U.S. adult Internet users found that informal file-sharing networks are used by 19 percent of music and video downloaders, with MP3 players, e-mail, and instant messaging products popular mediums for transferring files between friends and family. The results of the survey suggest that legal action by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and others is shifting file swapping to other online avenues, even as file-sharing activity recovers from recent declines, Pew says.

Around 27 percent of Internet users surveyed by Pew said they downloaded either music or video files over the Internet, and 48 percent of all those who downloaded said they use sources other than P-to-P networks or premium online services, such as Apple Computer's ITunes, to get music or video files. Pew estimates that about 18 million Americans are swapping files using nontraditional means based on the survey results.

Surprising Findings

Approximately 19 percent of the adult Internet users in the survey admitted to downloading files using an MP3 player, such as an Apple IPod. That translates into about 7 million adults, and is surprising, because products like the IPod are not designed to support file sharing between devices, says Mary Madden, a research specialist at Pew who wrote the report.

Exchanging music and video files over e-mail or IM networks was even more common. Twenty-eight percent of downloaders, or an estimated 10 million adult Internet users in the U.S., said they got files that way. Other alternative sources included music and movie Web sites, blogs, and online review sites.

The informal file-sharing on networks that also serve other purposes is harder to monitor and show that Internet users are just finding workarounds and alternative ways to trade files, Madden says.

"With the everyday use of e-mail and IM, it's interesting to see that around one in four downloaders get their files that way," she says.

File sharing through those means doesn't approach the scale of swapping on P-to-P networks, but does show that those who want to share songs or get a file are persistent, she says.

"People aren't sending entire albums, but if they hear a song and want to share it with a friend, they might be more comfortable sending it over IM [than using P-to-P software]," she says.

Chilling Effect

However, movie and music industry lawsuits and legal online music services may be dampening illegal P-to-P file trading. Almost twice as many survey respondents, 43 percent, said they use paid online music services compared with just 24 percent in a similar survey in 2004. The survey found that file downloaders are actually more likely to say they use paid services than P-to-P, Madden says.

About 30 percent of respondents who said they were former file swappers admitted giving file sharing up because of fears about getting in trouble or RIAA lawsuits. But those who took the survey were divided on the legal questions that surround file swapping on the Internet, she says.

Forty-nine percent of survey respondents said firms that own and operate file-sharing networks should be held responsible for the pirated music and movie files traded on the networks. However, a majority was divided about whether individual file traders or a combination of companies and individuals should be held responsible. Eighteen percent of those surveyed said they didn't know who should take the blame for pirated music and video content.

Illegal Internet file swapping has received much attention in recent years, following entertainment industry lawsuits that shuttered the original Napster music swapping service and hobbled its descendents, such as Kazaa and Grokster.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in MGM vs. Grokster. The case has pit technology trade groups and consumer advocates against the entertainment industry, with technology companies arguing that P-to-P software, like many other technologies, has legal applications that should be allowed.

The Pew survey suggests that technology besides P-to-P software could eventually become embroiled in the file-sharing controversy, Madden says.

"What this study shows is that people download music and video files from a wide array of sources. One thing that technology companies fear is that their products will get caught in the crossfire if the court rules in favor of the entertainment industry," she says.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon