Music Piracy Is Rising — And the U.S. Is a Trouble Spot
Stream-ripping is the most prevalent form of music piracy in the States, the world's third largest market for piracy, according to a report from MUSO.
Global music piracy crept up in 2022, marking the second straight year it has increased after a period of steady decline, according to a report from MUSO, a U.K. technology company. MUSO, which tracks consumption across websites around the world “to understand the true picture of digital piracy,” logged more than 15 billion visits to music piracy sites in 2022.
Piracy has been a thorn in the music industry’s side for more than two decades. In recent years, however, the widespread adoption of streaming has led to a steep drop in the types of peer-to-peer and file-sharing behavior that once threatened to bring the music business to its knees.
In a world driven by streaming, rather than downloads or CD sales, the industry is increasingly focused on a different set of issues. Key among them is streaming fraud, which is not driven by fan’s desire to have more music at their fingertips. Instead, this activity often involves bad actors siphoning money away from the music business — by running bot networks that play 31-second white-noise recordings nonstop on Spotify, for example.
Growth in streaming revenues shows signs of slowing, meaning that every dollar that leaks out of the music ecosystem is becoming more important to labels. And MUSO’s report shows that piracy, even if it has faded from headlines, isn’t negligible.
For example, Justin Bieber‘s songs, albums, or “music bundles” — which could include an entire discography — were illegally downloaded over 1 million times across the peer-to-peer/torrent network in 2022, with more than 40% of those downloads coming from the U.S. MUSO detected more than 950,000 illegal downloads of David Bowie‘s music, more than 780,000 across Bruce Springsteen’s catalog and more than 750,000 involving Bob Dylan releases.
The United States accounts for 7% of all piracy traffic picked up by MUSO, third only behind Iran (15.05%) and India (10.29%). Despite the prevalence of streaming among U.S. listeners, their appetite for piracy far outpaces their peers in other major music markets like the United Kingdom (1.86% of piracy traffic) and Germany (1.92%). And more than half of all the piracy in the United States takes place via stream-ripping, which relies on programs to get around YouTube’s copyright protection and convert audio into MP3s.
In 2019, the RIAA said it was monitoring more than 200 stream-ripping sites. Labels have taken legal measures to go after some of these: In December 2021, a U.S. judge ordered a pair of Russian sites to pay more than $80 million — $50,000 for each of the 1,618 copyrighted works infringed — in damages. The judge wrote that 1,618 was “likely on the low end of Defendant’s indeterminable number of violations.” Tofig Kurbanov, the owner of the sites, subsequently appealed the ruling.
RIAA chief legal officer Ken Doroshow said at the time that “this litigation sets out vital first principles that should chart a path for further enforcement against foreign stream-rippers and other forms of online piracy that undermine the legitimate market for music.” The ruling, he said, “is a major step forward to protect artists, songwriters, record labels, and consumers from one of the most pernicious forms of online piracy.”
Despite the judgement, MUSO’s data indicates that stream-ripping remains the most prevalent form of piracy in the United States, accounting for more than half of piracy demand in the country (51.3%). This is well above the global average, which MUSO found to be 33.4%.
Overall, music piracy has fallen by more than half since 2017, according to MUSO. But the company predicts another small rise in 2023.
“For the Film and TV sectors, MUSO’s data indicate that piracy demand will continue to increase across 2023, as inflationary and economic pressures result in subscriber losses for the various legal streaming services,” the company’s report notes. “This will drive users to illegally stream or download the content they want to watch via piracy sites. MUSO does anticipate seeing a similar uptick in music piracy across 2023,” but one that will be “less marked than [in] other industries.”