Music industry litigation may be creating a harder-to-police file sharing underground, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Lawsuits against file swappers and peer-to-peer (P2P) software companies may be forcing Internet users onto informal networks to exchange songs and videos, the researchers said.

A Pew survey of 1,421 US adult Internet users found that informal file-sharing networks are used by 19 per cent of music and video downloaders, with MP3 players, email and instant message products popular mediums for transferring files between friends and family. The survey results suggest that litigation is shifting file swapping to other online avenues, even as file-sharing activity recovers from recent declines, Pew said.

People share music

Around 27 per cent of Internet users surveyed by Pew said they downloaded either music or video files over the Internet, and 48 per cent of all those who downloaded said they use sources other than P2P networks or premium online services, such as iTunes, to get music or video files. Pew estimates that about 18 million Americans are swapping files using nontraditional means based on the survey results.

Approximately 19 per cent of the adult Internet users in the survey admitted to downloading files using a music player. That translates into about 7 million adults, and is surprising, because products like the iPod are not designed to support file sharing between devices, said Mary Madden, a research specialist at Pew who wrote the report.

Exchanging music and video files over email or instant message networks was even more common. Twenty-eight per cent of downloaders, or an estimated ten million adult Internet users in the US, said they got files that way. Other alternative sources included music and movie sites, blogs and online review sites.

Persistent sharing

The informal file-sharing on networks that also serve other purposes is harder to monitor and show that Internet users are just finding workarounds and alternative ways to trade files, Madden said.

"With the everyday use of email and messaging, it's interesting to see that around one in four downloaders get their files that way," she said.

File sharing through those means doesn't approach the scale of swapping on P2P networks, but does show that those who want to share songs or get a file are persistent, she said.

"People aren't sending entire albums, but if they hear a song and want to share it with a friend, they might be more comfortable sending it over IM (than using P2P software)," she said.

P2P use declines

However, movie and music industry lawsuits and legal online music services may be dampening illegal P2P file trading. Almost twice as many survey respondents, 43 per cent, said they use paid online music services compared with just 24 per cent in a similar survey in 2004. The survey found that file downloaders are actually more likely to say they use paid services than P2P, Madden said.

About 30 per cent of respondents who said they were former file swappers admitted giving file sharing up because of fears about getting in trouble or RIAA lawsuits. But those who took the survey were divided on the legal questions that surround file swapping on the Internet, she said.

Who is responsible?

49 per cent of survey respondents said firms that own and operate file-sharing networks should be held responsible for the pirated music and movie files traded on the networks. However, a majority were divided about whether individual file traders or a combination of companies and individuals should be held responsible. 18 per cent of those surveyed said they didn't know who should take the blame for pirated music and video content.

Madden said: "What this study shows is that people download music and video files from a wide array of sources. One thing that technology companies fear is that their products will get caught in the crossfire if the court rules in favour of the entertainment industry," she said.