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Digital Piracy

Think Music Piracy Has Been Extinguished? Think Again

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(Hypebot) — One in five internet users is accessing unlicensed music files as newer modes of piracy extend the struggle to control unsanctioned music acquisition, writes analyst Russ Crupnik of MusicWatch.

By Russ Crupnick of music consumer research firm MusicWatch

The music industry has been fighting variations of piracy for several generations. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Audio Home Recording Act, a bill passed in Congress which stipulated, among other things, a royalty to the recording industry on devices and media that could be used for copying audio recordings. Back in the day millions of Americans, armed with tape decks and inexpensive cassettes, traded and copied music albums.

A decade later many swapped cassettes for CD burners and ripped their way to massive collections. One in five internet users illegally downloaded music files from file sharing services such as Napster and Limewire.

By 2008 Pandora was a favorite on the iPhone app store, and in 2011 along came Spotify. Many analysts forecast that mass music streaming would effectively end music piracy once and for all.

That has not happened, at least not yet. In 2020 8 million internet users in the US downloaded music from a P2P site or torrent service. For context, 11 million bought a vinyl record. While the P2P numbers are a portion of their peak in the “aughts” the number is not trivial. Imagine the reaction if 8 million vinyl buyers shoplifted two or three albums from Target or Barnes & Noble!


A few years ago we coined the term “badquisition”, meaning bad or unsanctioned acquisition. The idea was to take the intrigue out of piracy. In 2020 MusicWatch estimated that 54 million US internet users engaged in some variant of badquisiton- intentional or not.  That’s one in five internet users aged 13 and older.

Ripping CDs has given way to ripping music videos, mostly from YouTube. Google the phrase “copying music” and you’re likely to return “best YouTube download apps”.  You will not be alone. MusicWatch estimated that 16 million stream-ripped music in the US.

Besides stream-ripping and illegal downloads from P2P and torrents, an estimated:

  • 23 million are using mobile apps to download unlicensed music
  • 19 million are swapping flash or hard drives with music

“the majority of “Badquirers” actually pay for a streaming service”

Oddly, access to the music when offline is the #1 reason cited for using either a mobile or stream-rip app to obtain music files. Since the majority of “Badquirers” actually pay for a streaming service this suggests many aren’t aware that they can save music from their service to listen when offline. Building awareness around this functionality might help to dampen Badquisition.

The latest variant is getting music from links on social media apps. MusicWatch estimated 15 million users got music this way. Although artists and labels often use social media to promote releases and tours, unsanctioned links are regularly posted by consumers and on platforms that are not licensed to offer the music. You might ask “what’s the harm” if the music is getting heard and promoted. On licensed platforms the music is promoted, and the artist and copyright owners get compensated. Our favorite artists can continue to produce music, and there’s money in the system to help promote the next generation of artists. Nearly one-in-three stream-rippers reported that they did a search for the music, and that search included links to a stream-ripping app. It’s hard to argue that it’s incumbent on the search and social platforms to improve policing of apps, especially apps whose primary purpose is allowing users to access content in ways that circumvent conventional licensing.

The early digital music user was overwhelmingly young and male, as were early P2P users.  These days all ages engage, but certain formats are overweighted to a particular segment. Stream-ripping skews younger whereas more P2P and torrent downloaders are aged 25-44.

Hopefully “variants” is a phrase we will all forget by 2022, at least for public health. For the music industry however, protecting copyright and licenses against Badquisition variants is an ongoing battle.

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