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For every DRM download, 16 P2P swaps

An underestimate, we reckon

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Cheering news for the pigopolists this week, from The Guardian newspaper.

"Music industry cheered by sinking of pirates" runs the headline. And someone called Cosima Marriner, who sounds like a song from Marc Bolan's great warbling elvish period, informs us that the great internet music battle of recent years is as good as over.

"The record industry's hardline stance on illegal downloads appears to be paying off, with the number of people paying for them expected to overtake the pirates within a year."

Really?

"The results are evidence that the British Phonographic Industry's high-profile, litigious strategy to crack down on music pirates is having an effect," she claims.

The source for this Onion-like reportage is a music industry survey which claims that 35 per cent of "music consumers" had either downloaded a legal MP3 they were entitled to hear - and these aren't hard to find, as almost every artist in the world makes one available - or used one of the locked-music services such as Apple's iTunes or Napster. 40 per cent of internet users, the survey found, download

"I think there is a good chance that we will see legal downloaders outnumber pirates in the next six to 12 months," says Russell Hart, who conducted the survey on behalf of the record industry.

Or not. Note that the survey is comparing two different samples: "music consumers" on the one hand, and "internet users" on the other.

And the numbers bear little semblance to reality.

More credible analysts peg the number of illegal P2P downloads as rather higher. The Yankee Group's Michael Goodman puts the number of 'legal' DRM-encumbered downloads at 330 million last year - compared to 5 billion downloads from the P2P networks. So for every 'legal' purchase, there are 16 illegal downloads.

Other estimates put the number far higher than Yankee. Four billion per month is a figure we hear from ISPs and their upstream providers. Which means for every legal purchase, there are actually over 150 illegal downloads.

The legal offensives against P2P users have grabbed plenty of publicity, but the impact on real file sharing has been temporary, and file sharing surges after each publicity blip, as Professor Terry Fisher at Harvard University observed here.

So there's no evidence that uncompensated file exchanges are dying out. And with a new generation of portable 'social hardware' that makes ad hoc file exchanges trivially easy, the file-swapping craze has barely begun.

The issue has never been about how computer users should download music, but how best to compensate the original creators of these works when they do. If the traditional models we've used for radio, or public broadcasting were extended to digital devices, we could solve "piracy" for as little as $5 per user per month, safe in the knowledge that rights holders were being paid, and we could swap digital files all we liked.

This week the US copyright registrar reminded us that the rights holders and publishing agencies are already talking about such a flat fee arrangement, so much of the public discourse on P2P and music is simply a sham.

So why is the iPod-crazy Guardian so determined to avoid reporting what's really going on in digital media? A clue comes from our story last year entitled UK newspapers hop on music download bandwagon. It's simply a case of very cynical short-term thinking. Marketing whizzes at the large media groups already know they can flog books through their review sections, so why not music? Right now The Guardian newspaper is simply a marketing division of The Guardian, the online locked-music store: coming to a portal near you. ®

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