The ongoing battle against illegal music downloads in Singapore is slowly turning in favor of the music industry, thanks to tougher copyright laws and a series of high-profile police raids.
"It's having the desired effect. The number of people using P-to-P protocols have dropped off," said Edward Neubronner, the chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of Singapore (RIAS), an industry group comprised of local and multinational record labels. That decline can be measured in the number of warnings sent by RIAS to Internet users in Singapore, which has dropped from more than 800 in October 2005 to 32 last month, he said.
Singapore's latest crackdown on illegal music downloads started on Oct. 8, when police raided the homes of seven Internet users accused of downloading music via online file-sharing services and seized their computers. The raids, which relied in part on information provided by RIAS, targeted five men and two women, ranging in ages from 14 to 32 years old.
The raids grabbed headlines in local papers and on the evening news. But more was to come.
On Tuesday, the RIAS filed police complaints against 25 more people, each accused of illegally sharing thousands of music files over the Internet. The charges came as part of a wider offensive against illegal music downloads launched by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which brought suits against 8,000 people in 17 countries.
The penalties are heavy for the people named in these suits. Under Singapore's updated copyright law, which took effect last year, any person convicted of downloading or sharing copyright music faces up to six months in jail and a fine of S$20,000 (AUD$16,775). In February, two young men, aged 22 and 21, became the first to be sentenced to prison under the law, receiving four months and three months, respectively, for illegally sharing music files over the Internet
"When we file these cases with the police, it's always as a last resort," Neubronner said. But when users ignore warnings from the RIAS, the group has little sympathy for them, especially given the high-profile coverage that Singapore's press gives to the consequences of illegally downloading music. "We've given them the benefit of the doubt, there's nothing left for them to say," he said.
Sudhansy Sarronwala, chief executive officer of SoundBuzz, which offers legitimate music downloads in several countries, including Singapore, India and Australia, credits RIAS with doing a good job under difficult circumstances, saying that progress is being made. "It's a really tough gig," he said, noting digital music sales have risen steadily since 2004.
But while the RIAS and Singapore's police have made headway fighting illegal downloads, music piracy is far from being eliminated. "For kids, I don't know if they see it as legal or illegal, it's just something they do. For them it's like jaywalking, it's not such a big deal," Sarronwala said.
Internet users in their in their late teens and early 20s are particularly resistant to buying digital music. "That's the group that grew up during the early days of Napster and P-to-P. You're never going to be able to sell to them," Sarronwala said, calling them the "lost generation."
By comparison, older users can be won over to legitimate download services more easily because they are not price sensitive. "For them, S$1.99 or S$2.99 per song is nothing," he said.
Fighting the problem of music piracy requires lawsuits and police raids to underscore the seriousness of the problem, but this approach must go hand-in-hand with efforts to offer legitimate music-download services. "You need to tell people that what you're doing is illegal, but there are legal alternatives," Sarronwala said.
"It's getting there," he said.