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P2P file swapping back on the increase

Not going away after all, then?

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As you were, then. Hot on the heels of tentative claims of victory over file-swappers by the music industry, the number of dangerous, music downloading criminals started climbing again in the US. Illegal music downloader numbers had been falling for six months, according to NPD Group, but a survey by the outfit reports that they climbed six per cent in October and seven per cent in November.

Quoted by an AP report, NP Group VP Russ Crupnick pointed out that file sharing was still less than it was prior to the RIAA's legal crackdown, and suggested the rises might simply be seasonal, with demand being fueled by holiday season album releases. Clearly, it's too early to judge, but on the other hand it's also too early to deem that the RIAA sue-athon has saved the music industry.

RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy told AP that the RIAA's efforts were on the right track regardless of the NPD numbers, but pointed to other objectives, and to other signs of success. The RIAA is trying to create an environment "where legal online music services can flourish," and "All indicators point in the right direction - sales of CDs, legal downloads and awareness that file sharing copyrighted music is illegal - have all increased."

This is interesting first because it does not categorise the 100 per cent extermination of illegal file sharing as an objective, second because the RIAA's other objectives will almost certainly be met, and third because their achievement will have had almost zero to do with the RIAA.

Legal downloading services are increasing, which is not exactly surprising considering they barely existed until quite recently, but now they do. Awareness that sharing copyrighted music being on the increase is down to the RIAA, but the current shape of the figures suggest that the RIAA may find itself having to claim it has stopped exponential growth, rather than achieved a long-term reduction. And CD sales up? Hell, we don't know - could be seasonal, could be the music industry putting out slightly less crap, could be slightly lower CD prices, could even be people getting more interested in music because of file sharing. But it surely couldn't be people starting to buy CDs again because of the RIAA's terror campaign showing them the error of their ways - we doubt that very much.

Essentially, the legal downloading sector is now going to do what its proponents said all along - boom. File swapping will continue, but with the increase in legal sales will be a proportionately smaller section of the market. It'll probably be more relevant than home taping was when the music industry was in such a lather about that, but it won't be massively relevant - the stimulating effect of the Internet on music sales should see to that. The interesting question, however, is how music industry plan B will play out. The industry's attempts to invent its own DRM have been a sad failure, but the legal online music boom at the moment looks set to make DRM a success anyway.

The Orwellian version of music industry plan B therefore envisages a future where music that i>doesn't include DRM barely exists. This view has been madly expressed by BMG in the past, and Microsoft's cunning plans for audio adapters that police your use of the analogue output ("I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that right now...") are part and parcel of this wondrous vision. But we can probably discount this nonsense - no matter how foaming and up for it they are, the money will slowly but surely lead them elsewhere.

Where to some extent they're already arriving. You buy a CD, you can put it in any player, you can rip it, you can play it anywhere you like and you can re-rip it to higher fidelity as and when the technology or your budget can support it. Or if you can't, in most places you can complain and get some nice consumer outfit to sue whoever sold you a poison CD. But for most download purchases you're actually buying a lower fidelity version with (probably) limited rights over where you can play it and what you can do with it. So if people accept this, the logic for the music industry is to apply the wonders of the Internet to the old vinyl-tape-CD upgrade gag, and to start selling different versions of playback rights (want a shedload of one-time play music for tonight's party? we can do that for you).

This prospect is actually far more unpalatable than the downloader legal witch-hunts. Unpleasant as these might be for those being made an example of, they have little or no long term effect on the industry and the world in general. If however the world ends up accepting the roll-back of rights and the consequential creation of large-scale multi-sale opportunities for the music industry, it'll end up paying much more to precisely the people who've made such a mess of transitioning the music industry to online sales. ®

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