RIAA legal threat cuts P2P downloads by 23%

So the latest market stats suggest

The campaign launched in May by the Recording Industry Ass. of America (RIAA) to target individual music sharers appears to be scaring punters away from file-sharing services, the latest figures from market watcher NPD appear to show.

NPD tracks consumer file-sharing activity. It calculated that 14.5 million US households downloaded music files in April. In May the figure fell to 12.7 million, and dropped to 10.4 million in June, the company said today.

On a statistical note, the figures listed are calculated from the activity of a sample of 40,000 users, NPD said.

In April some 852 million songs were acquired via the Internet. Come June, the figure fell to 655 million. April, says NPD, was a record-setting month, but the fact it doesn't provide a figure for May, suggests the dip was relatively small.

Indeed, the average number of files downloaded per household grew between April and June, from 59 to 63.

The figures suggest that while hard-core downloaders are grabbing ever more tracks for themselves, more casual punters are holding fire.

"Our data suggests that the RIAA's legal tactics have more of an effect on the attitudes and actions of lighter downloaders," said NPD VP Russ Crupnick in a statement. The vast majority of songs downloaded are from P2P services, he added, implying that some at least come from paid-for download services.

Apple launched its Mac-based iTunes Music Service at the end of April, but even its impressive success - 6.5 million songs sold by the end of July - is nowhere near enough to counter the apparent decline between April and June. Similar services aimed at Windows users, such as BuyMusic and Listen.com, are likely to do better, but some have come too late to account for much more of the 197 million fewer songs downloaded between April and June than Apple does.

Certainly we'll need to see July, August and September figures to see whether all those songs that are now not being nabbed for free from P2P services are being paid for at Apple and the other commercial sites.

If the two figures don't match, it will put the nail in the coffin of the argument that punters would pay for music if they could, and confirm the view of the RIAA and its ilk that the only way to stop them is to threaten legal action.

However, a more interesting statistic to see would be the number of sample tracks that punters listen to at the iTunes Music Store, BuyMusic and so on. P2P pundits often claim that Grokster, Kazaa, Morpheus and the like are used more for checking out new music rather than acquiring it free of charge. If that's the case, we'd expect to see the number of sample tracks users are listening to increasing at the same rate that the number of P2P downloads are falling.

Instead of downloading potentially poorly encoded or virally infected files, music fans are choosing to sample music at the 'legitimate' sites before making music download or, more likely, CD purchases.

Such a trend - if it emerges - is both good and bad news for the P2P service providers. Good, because it shows that their users really aren't interested in pirating music, rather in increasing their exposure to new artists and sounds. The bad news is that they prefer to use a clearly above-board service to do so, and not a P2P with its perceived air - rightly or wrongly - of illegitimacy.

If NPD's analysis is correct, and it's the threat of legal action that is keeping punters away from the P2P services, it will be interesting to see what effect the RIAA's pledge not to pursue small-scale downloaders has as it becomes more widely known. ®

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