The music recording industry swooped on 247 individuals in Denmark, Germany, Italy and Canada yesterday for allegedly making copyright-protected music available on file-swapping services.
The announcement marks an expansion of the industry's tactic of pursuing individuals who offer music online to countries outside the US. Last week, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) launched a new round of lawsuits against US file swappers.
The action in Europe and Canada is aimed at individuals who offered hundreds of files for download, said the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). Further action against "major uploaders" will be launched in different countries in the coming months.
In Sweden, for example, copyright holders are launching an instant messaging campaign to put users of file-sharing services on notice that they face legal retaliation if they continue offering copyright-protected music online.
Educational campaigns have proven not to be a sufficient deterrent; legal action is the only way to get people to rethink their actions, said IFPI chairman and chief executive officer Jay Berman.
The IFPI sees RIAA's action in the US as a success. Studies show that use of file-swapping services fell in the wake of RIAA's pursuit of individual file sharers. However, according to one study, use is now increasing again.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project in January said the number of US internet users who download songs on peer-to-peer networks fell from 29% to 14% at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, The NPD Group - also in January - said that use of file-sharing services was up 14% in November 2003 compared with September, an upturn after six straight months of declines.
Global sales of recorded music fell 7% in 2002, according to the IFPI. Numbers for 2003 have not yet been released, but the IFPI estimates another 7% decline.
But not everyone subscribes to the theory that file-swapping hurts music sales. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina tracked downloads of songs from 680 albums during a 17-week period in 2002 and compared that data with the commercial success of the same albums. They found downloads had an effect on sales that is "statistically indistinguishable from zero".
"The internet is actually more like the radio than people assume. Users almost always download one or two songs and if they like the album they buy it," said Felix Oberholzer, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who worked on the study.
"The internet seems to be a great promotional tool. If I can get people to download several songs from an album, maybe the person will actually buy the album," he said.
The targeted file sharers used a range of applications, including Kazaa, DirectConnect, WinMX, eMule and iMesh, the IFPI said. It is unlikely anyone will be imprisoned as a result of the action, but large fines are possible.
Joris Evers writes for IDG News Service