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By Rachel Lismore-Burns
In the past week, the ongoing legal battle against file-sharing software company Limewire has reached its conclusion with the company agreeing to pay £64.6m to 13 music firms in an out of court settlement. The company along with its creator, Mark Gorton, had previously been found guilty of copyright infringement and aiding others to pirate music in May 2010. In October of that year the company was banned from letting people search, upload, download or trade files via the software, effectively resulting in its closure (until a pirate edition was produced still running those services).
The illegal downloading of music has seen a huge rise in the past decade. In 1997, 78 million singles were sold; in 2008 it was just 8.6 million. Many attribute one company to be the beginning of this: Napster. Napster was created in June 1999 by Shawn Fanning as an online music sharing system. Users were able to make their own music available to others through the file sharing system as well as selectively download specific songs for free. This was a heavy infringement upon copyright laws and consequently Napster was shut down in 2001 but the damage was done. Once people had realised that they could get their music for free, they were no longer content to spend money on albums that they may not like. In the next two years alone a further 15 file sharing companies launched and CD sales declined dramatically.
It is now estimated that around half the population in the UK has engaged in illegal downloading but just what are the consequences if you happen to be caught? Distribution of pirated material is a criminal offence which can lead to fines or imprisonment depending on the seriousness of the situation. If you can prove that all of your downloads have been for personal use only you will be saved from heavy punishment but there is likely to be some consequences – an internet cut off for example. In the last few years, anti-piracy agencies have begun working with internet service providers such as Virgin which has given them access to the IP addresses of suspected illegal downloaders. Letters have been sent out warning of internet disconnection and court appearances. It is America though that has come down heavily on anyone downloading illegal material. Individuals can be held personally liable for loss of profit for record companies, regardless of whether the downloading was for personal use. They have also begun to use fake files on the file-sharing networks to track down IP’s – a tactic that is sure to make its way over to Britain.
File-sharing does not seem to be going anywhere soon – and the truth is, it is easier than buying albums. Not only because it is free but because it is convenient - it can be done straight from your laptop and you are not forced into buying a whole album when you may only want a few songs. The music industry has realised this and there are many ways now to download mp3’s online – The Apple Store for example – at a cost of around 80p per track. These sites are rising in popularity but unfortunately it is still struggling to compete with a service that provides free access to pretty much any file you can think of. It is likely that it will get harder and harder to download without fear of prosecution but until the punishment is more than ‘a threatening letter’, I don’t see the 96% of 18-24 year olds who currently download illegally giving up.