Millions of people download music from the internet
File-sharing firms have welcomed a US court decision to block the latest attempt by music labels to shut them down.
On Friday, US District Court Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that song-swapping services Grokster and Morpheus could not be shut down as they cannot control what is traded over their systems.
Judge Wilson's ruling is in a similar vein to a landmark case in 1984 which found that videocassette recorders should not be outlawed because they can be used legally as well as illegally.
The decision marks the first significant legal setback for the entertainment industry in its battle against peer-to-peer services that allow users to download movies, music and other files for free.
Different to Napster
The ruling means that the labels and studios cannot ban 21st century technology in defence of their inefficient and outmoded 20th century distribution model
"Grokster and StreamCast [parent company of Morpheus] are not significantly different from companies that sell home video recorders or copy machines, both of which can be and are used to infringe copyrights," said Judge Wilson in his summing up.
His comments give Grokster, Morpheus and other Napster successors some legal basis on which to operate.
"The ruling means that the labels and studios cannot ban 21st century technology in defence of their inefficient and outmoded 20th century distribution model," said President of Grokster, Wayne Rosso.
"As the court said, file-sharing software is no different from a Xerox machine or a Sony VCR - a tool that can be used for both legal and illegal purposes," he added.
Napster, the forerunner to current file-swapping services, was found to be operating illegally because it had a central server which connected people uploading and downloading songs.
Businesses that intentionally facilitate massive piracy should not be able to evade responsibility for their actions,
None of the current file-swapping services operate in this way and if Grokster or Morpheus deactivated their computers, people could continue sharing files with little interruption.
Friday's ruling could pave the way to negotiations between file-sharing firms and the major labels.
So far the music industry has refused to talk to what it calls internet pirates such as Mr Rosso and has also been reluctant to release much music for sale over the web.
Already there are signs of a softening of approach towards digital music, with EMI offering much of its major artists' work over the net.
However, for the moment, the Recording Industry Association of America seems determined to continue the fight with the file-swappers.
"Businesses that intentionally facilitate massive piracy should not be able to evade responsibility for their actions," said RIAA Chief Executive Hilary Rosen in a statement.
Trade groups for movie studios and record labels have said they plan to appeal against the ruling.