Record industry claims it is winning the battle against illegal music downloads

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The Independent Online

The music industry claimed to have "turned the corner" in its struggle with online file-swappers yesterday, after figures showed a continuing fall in the number of songs being traded for free on the internet.

But a legal representative for the industry warned that there could be lawsuits in the UK against individuals who swap files online. This mirrors moves in the United States, where hundreds of people have received demands for thousands of dollars in damages from record companies alleging they have made songs available for sharing online.

The combination of those lawsuits, allied to the emergence of legal music download sites, is encouraging people to shun file-swapping services such as Kazaa and Grokster, said Jay Berman, chairman and chief executive of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents record companies' interests worldwide. Independent studies show that the number of song files being swapped online fell from a peak of nearly a billion in April last year to approximately 800 million now. However, many of those are duplicates, said Ted Cohen, head of EMI Music's digital development division, meaning that the actual number of unique tracks available is much smaller.

The new studies indicate that after five years' fighting against online music sharing, which began with the Napster network (since rehabilitated into a legal music download business), the people at the top of the music business are optimistic about their future online prospects.

"We believe the music industry's internet strategy is now turning the corner and that in 2004 there will be, for the first time, a substantial migration of consumers from unauthorised free services," said Mr Berman.

The online business is tiny - just 0.2 per cent of music sales - but it is growing exponentially, said Ed Averdieck, marketing director for the online distribution company OD2. But the industry still faces an uphill battle against file- sharing. Although there are now dozens of legal download sites, the IFPI estimates that there are about 500,000 unique tracks available through them. Even accounting for duplicates on the file-sharing systems, there are potentially hundreds of times more songs available there than on the legal sites.

Mr Cohen said legal sites were making it easier to find music. "I was able to download the whole of Cyndi Lauper's new album from Apple's iTunes Store [currently available only in the US] in a few minutes. I then tried a file-sharing system and after three hours I only had 10 of the 12 tracks," he said.

Record companies are fighting back by offering special tracks through download sites only. EMI said yesterday that the newsingle by Norah Jones, "Sunrise", had set a sales record on its addition to Apple's store last week, ahead of its release on CD.