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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 13:47 GMT
Q&A: Music swapping and legal action
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has said it is considering suing individual music fans who swap songs over the internet.

This follows similar action taken by the US music industry body, the Recording Industry Association of America. BBC News Online looks at what this could mean for music swappers in the UK, and the issues behind the BPI's tactics.

I have downloaded music over the internet. Can I be sued?

Not if you have downloaded the songs from a legitimate sites which pays royalties to labels and artists.

If you download songs using a site which is not sanctioned - whether it is one song or a million - you are infringing copyright and you run the risk of being sued.

The BPI has not yet made its mind up about pursuing individual users. But a spokesman said: "The disturbing increase in the illegal copying and distribution of unauthorised music files over the internet is making legal action increasingly likely."

Could I be sued for swapping a few songs?

Theoretically, you could. However, the BPI is likely to go after swappers who have consistently traded large amounts of music.

This would follow the line taken by the RIAA in the US, which last year took action against a college student in Michigan who ran a network offering more than 650,000 files - the equivalent of more than 43,000 albums.

But aren't UK record sales up? What's the problem?

They are. Artist album sales in the UK rose by 7.6% in 2003 to a record high - defying trends around the world. But the increase comes from cheaper prices.

More worryingly for the industry, singles sales are down by almost 30%. The industry blames this on illegal download sites - with broadband becoming far more common, it is easier to simply download a track than go out and buy it.

Furthermore, as faster internet connections are installed in more homes, more people could start to download whole albums from the internet - a prospect the industry would like to nip in the bud.

How many tracks are illegally downloaded by UK internet users?

Research is still being carried out into how many internet users are song-swapping in the UK. However, the BPI is taking the dramatic fall in single sales as an indication that something is wrong.

Critics, however, say other factors have affected singles sales - such as the way they are promoted, their cost, and their poor value compared to cheaper albums. The record industry has also had to fight against other leisure activities - the popularity of DVDs and video games, for instance.

Weren't singles on their way out anyway?

Single sales have been in decline for years, but the music industry sees the popularity of downloads as a way of reviving the single-track format - even if it is delivered digitally. Already, there is a chart for digital downloads and soon, downloads may be counted in the singles chart.

The BPI says the British music industry is in a "period of transition" towards a market where legitimate digital distribution is commonplace. Its chairman, Peter Jamieson, has estimated that 50% of single sales will be conducted online within two years.

Where are all these legitimate download sites?

US sites such as iTunes are not yet available to UK users, but British music sites including Sound Generator and Playlouder offer downloads, as do retailers HMV and Streets Online.

The US launch of iTunes, where users can choose from 200,000 songs at 99 cents a song was a huge success, with more than 30 million tracks downloaded since its launch in April 2003. A European version is expected to arrive this year.

A similar deal is offered by the relaunched Napster, but there are no plans for it to be made available in Europe.

However, the BPI is keen to see legal download services develop, and other major players are likely to have their own plans.

Isn't it daft to expect people to buy a "new" single which has been played on the radio for two months already?

Record companies have used singles as a marketing tool for albums for many years - but with sales falling, the way singles are marketed could be ready for a change. The BPI says the singles market is "under review" as it moves towards selling more tracks online.

Has suing individual users been a success in the US?

It is too soon to tell if the RIAA's court actions have seen record sales recover. But traffic through the larger file-sharing networks has dropped - usage of the Kazaa network had dropped 41% in the three months to September 2003, when the RIAA started pursuing court cases.

However, it suffered a blow last month when the US Supreme Court said American internet service providers (ISPs) could not be forced to hand over the names of users who were swapping large numbers of files, after a case brought by one of America's biggest ISPs, Verizon.

In the UK, the BPI says it is in talks with European ISPs to ensure culprits can be identified.

Why chase individual users - what about the sites themselves?

The music industry has had mixed fortunes in its court actions against the companies that support file-swapping on the internet. Some have been successful - like the action which forced the original Napster to close - and some have not.

In May 2003 a US judge ruled that two file-swapping networks, Grokster and Morpheus, were not responsible for what was traded on their systems.

And last month, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled the developers of the Kazaa network were not breaking the law.

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