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Music piracy way down, study shows

Before iTunes and eMusic and long before Pandora and Spotify, Napster, for a brief period of two years or so, reigned as the Internet’s most popular record store. Except, of course, for the fact that no money ever changed hands; Napster was the first free file-sharing website in what would become a boom era for music piracy.

Now ten years after Napster was shutdown by a court order, a new study shows that music is no longer the most popular target for Internet pirates — it’s not even close. The study, funded by NBC Universal and conducted by Envisional, looked at 10,000 of the most popular files on the BitTorrent tracker PublicBT and found that music comprised just 2.9 percent of the files examined. The most popular pirated material? Porn, of course, which compromised 35.8 percent. Non-pornographic films compromised 35.2 percent and television programs were the third most popular, making up 12.7 of the files.

So have years of threatened lawsuits goaded music fans into adopting legal alternatives (iTunes, eMusic, Amazon MP3) for their downloading pleasures? Perhaps. But it’s also likely that the rise of free legal streaming services (Spotify and Pandora, for example) have made piracy more trouble than it’s actually worth.

Even as online music is increasingly more mainstream-capitalist and less underground-pirate, the threat may not be as benign as Envision’s study makes it seem. In a response to the findings, BitTorrent blog TorrentFreak pointed out that Envision determined its 10,000 most popular files by the number of leechers, people in the process of downloading a particular file, attached to files and not by the number of completed downloads. Owing to the fact that movie files are generally much larger than music files — 1.73GB to 214MB, respectively — movies are downloaded at a much slower rate than music and therefore tend to have more leechers at any given time.

“If the top 10,000 was based on actual completed downloads the percentage of music torrents would have been much higher,” TorrentFreak said. “We’re of course not arguing that more people download music on BitTorrent than movies, but based on the above it seems likely that the difference between the two categories in “actual” popularity (completed downloads in a given time) is being misrepresented.”

So far the movie industry (porn industry excluded from this discussion) has adopted an approach that used to be a standard for the music industry: lawsuits, both threatened and prosecuted. Last year, the filmmakers behind “The Hurt Locker” launched a massive legal campaign directed at those suspected of illegally downloading the movie via BitTorrent. Since then, others in the film industry have followed the example. However, if the movie industry wants to really curb piracy they’ll have to drop the saber rattling and embrace alternative ways of delivering their content to the masses. It may not be easy or as a profitable as some would like, but it’s almost certainly cheaper than watching piracy numbers rise.

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