Survey does not distinguish between free and pay sites

The recording industry’s legal assault on Internet song-swappers appears to be having the desired effect: The percentage of Americans who download music online has been sliced in half, according to a report released Sunday.

Fourteen percent of Internet users surveyed from Nov. 18-Dec. 14 said they sometimes download songs to their computers, according to the report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore Media Metrix, a Web tracking firm.

That number was 29% in May, the same as in February 2001.

The survey did not distinguish between use of free, “peer-to-peer” music-sharing sites such as Kazaa, and licensed, commercial downloading sites such as the new Napster, MusicMatch, Rhapsody and iTunes.

But the study attributed the plunge to the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s strategy of suing individual song-swappers. The study noted most of the licensed commercial sites didn’t exist when previous surveys were conducted but that they have attracted many users.

The RIAA has sued nearly 400 individuals for copyright violations since September, but most of those cases have been settled. Although the RIAA can legally demand $150,000 per song, people familiar with the cases have said most settlements have been in the $2,500-$7,500 range.

RIAA chief exec Mitch Bainwol said he was heartened by the Pew study but declared the suits against individual users would continue in 2004. “We would not look at any single measure and make a statement of victory,” he said. “But what we do know is this: The lawsuits have had a profound impact on awareness and fewer people are downloading (illegally), and that’s good news.”

The music business suffered through another down year in 2003, with overall units sold dropping 0.8%, according to Nielsen SoundScan. CD sales fell 2%. But the fourth quarter saw an overall gain of 10.5% from the same period a year earlier.

The Pew telephone survey of 1,358 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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