The number of US Internet users downloading peer-to-peer (P-to-P) music files has significantly dropped in recent months, according to a new study proposing that recording industry lawsuits against individual downloaders could have contributed to the fall.

The percentage of Americans claiming to download music from the Net fell from 29 per cent, or about 35 million people, in May of last year to 14 per cent, or 18 million people, in December, the Pew Internet & American Life Project said in a study released Sunday. Furthermore, while four per cent of US Internet users were recorded as saying that they downloaded music files in a survey conducted March through May of 2003, only one per cent of users said the same in the latest survey conducted November through December.

The recording industry's recent crackdown against file sharers could be one factor behind the recent decline in downloading, Pew said. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) expanded its antipiracy campaign last September, issuing a wave of subpoenas against individual users believed to be downloading copyright protected music. The record industry group has since filed 382 lawsuits against users for "egregious" copyright infringement, according to Pew.

While the Pew study revealed that one-fifth of those surveyed said that they are downloading less music due to the suits, other factors could have contributed to the decrease in file sharing such as the emergence of new paid download sites, Pew said.

"I definitely believe that the RIAA suits contributed to the increased use of paid music sites," comScore analyst Graham Mudd said yesterday.

In a statement released yesterday, RIAA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mitch Bainwol said that the study was "another encouraging indication that we are on the right track."

"We must continue on this course," he added.