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Music Piracy Goes Mobile

Mobile applications are now the most widely used source of free music downloads, says an NPD study. / Vjeran Pavic

The music industry faces a new front in its long-running battle against piracy: The smartphone.

Mobile applications have eclipsed file-sharing services, online storage sites known as “digital lockers” and stream-ripping software as the most widely used source of free music downloads, according to a new study from researcher NPD Group, whose results have not previously been made public.

Some 27 million people in the U.S. have used mobile applications to get at least one song in the past year, much of it believed to be unauthorized, NPD found in research that seeks for the first time to quantify the phenomenon. That’s more than the 21 million people NPD estimates use peer-to-peer sites such as isoHunt to download music.

“In the beginning, we had feature phones with ringtones and very slow networks,” said NPD industry analyst Russ Crupnick. “As the technology improves, it becomes a free for all for someone who wants free music files.”

The Google Play store offers some 250 apps for downloading MP3 files to smartphones and tablets powered by its Android software. Several tout the benefit of connecting users to the sources of free music that they could find through a typical Internet search.

But, the most popular of these Android apps, Music Maniac, has been downloaded more than 10 million times — and affords free access to all 10 of the top songs listed on the current Billboard’s Hot 100 list. The Recording Industry Association of America said it has sent notices to Google requesting the app’s removal, claiming it enables song piracy. Google has thus far refused.

The music industry has been intensifying its efforts to combat piracy on smartphones — a device that executives see as critical to efforts to revitalize the business. Mobile phones have enabled the major labels to bring licensed music services to Africa and other parts of the globe that previously were off the technological grid.

Global music revenue slumped 3.9 percent last year to $15 billion, as the world’s second-largest music market, Japan, experienced a sharp drop in sales. Digital revenue — particularly from subscription services such as Spotify or Beats Music — continue to grow.

The industry’s global trade group, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, or IFPI, issued a warning about the widening scope of piracy in its annual report issued on March 18. It noted that 26 percent of Internet users have accessed unlicensed services.

“This estimate applies only to desktop-based devices,” the trade group noted. “It does not include the emerging and as-yet-unquantified threat of smartphone and tablet-based mobile piracy as consumers migrate to those devices.”

Mobile devices once were thought to be a safe-haven from piracy, because of the limitations of the early phones and mobile networks.

“All you were going to do is buy a ringtone for $2.99,” said Crupnik.

That began to change as devices grew more capable and networks more robust. By 2012, the Recording Industry Association of America began to raise concerns with the White House’s intellectual property czar about mobile applications that it said facilitated copyright infringement.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, RIAA Chairman Cary Sherman said the industry has sent Google more than 2 million notices of infringements from But as recently as March 10, some 10 applications available through the Google Play store claimed some connection to the pirate site, Sherman said.

Apple takes a curated approach to software offered through its App store, and can reject an app that enables piracy. As the world’s largest music retailer, it has been aggressive in policing its apps, say music industry executives.

Google maintains an open marketplace. Apps undergo an automated process that screens for malicious behavior before developers can upload the software to the Google Play store. Its developer guidelines expressly prohibit copyright infringement — though it relies on copyright holders to flag apps that enable piracy.

One music industry executive, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said that since 2010 his label has issued some 3,000 requests to remove apps that enable piracy — with the “vast majority” found on Google’s Android platform.

Google is a frequent target of complaints from the music industry, whose trade associations claim the technology giant does too little to curb illegal music downloading. The IFPI, in its annual report, notes that search engines remain the largest source of traffic referred to unlicensed services.

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