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By Carla Wintersgill

Which of the 14 million iPods sold in the holiday quarter are spinning legitimate tracks?

It’s impossible to say how many songs are downloaded, but Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) chairman, Mitch Bainwol, estimates the monthly number exceeds two billion. Apple’s iTunes Music Store has sold 850 million songs since its 2003 introduction.

The sales have paralleled a surge in popularity of peer-to-peer (P2P) downloading programs such as Limewire, Soulseek, and Kazaa. Record companies are feeling the squeeze of lost revenue as a result of the popularity of such P2P networks.

The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) estimates a loss of $250 million Cdn in sales over the past three years — a 20 per cent drop for the industry. In the United States, where file sharing costs record companies an estimated $300 million US per year, the RIAA is cracking down on illegal downloading. It has pursued legal action against anyone found to have downloaded copyrighted material.

The CRIA is having less luck fighting copyright infringement. In March 2004, a court ruled that internet service providers were not required to identify users who post songs on file-sharing databases. The ruling means Canadians can continue to upload music anonymously without fear of legal action from irate record labels. Even if Canadian parliament passes Bill C-60, strengthening copyright laws, the court has established the precedent that Canadians are free to download songs without being identified. Many up-and-coming artists, however, don’t see downloading as a bad thing.

They post songs on the Internet for people to download, hoping to cultivate a fan base through sites such as Amy Elderkin, 21, is a Toronto-based aspiring singer/songwriter. She has a page on Myspace where she posts her songs, and credits the site with giving her much-needed exposure. “People want me to play gigs, people want to buy my stuff, people want to do collaborations with me,” she says.

“It’s a simple way to get people to listen to your music. You’re not pushing them and it’s there if they want it.”

Although Elderkin puts her own music out there, she has a problem with people downloading albums from artists for free. “When you burn an entire album, you’re not supporting the artist that you’re listening to and enjoying,” she says.

“Go out and support (the artist), otherwise they’re not going to be able to keep going because they won’t have any money to do it.”

Antonello Di Domenico, a consultant at Bumstead Productions Ltd., a management company whose roster includes the Canadian band The Trews, also sees sites such as Myspace as a useful promotional tool. “People go to Myspace. Why fight it?” he asks. Di Domenico currently manages a new band, Rocketface, who have a profile on Myspace. He encourages people to add them to their list of friends, and Di Domenico sees those people showing up for gigs.

Rocketface has more than 3000 people on its friends list. “If you’re a fan, you’ll support the band. Even if you download it, you’ll buy it,” says Di Domenico. “It’s a tough industry to crack,” he says. “There are only one or two Franz Ferdinands a year.” For incessant downloaders, Charles Coleman, a computer technician at Geek Squad, has a word of warning. “People that are tech savvy can take the connections the programs use to attach to your computer,” he says.

Coleman describes a computer as a house. The house has different doors: Some are locked, some are opened. Hackers and spyware programs know which doors are easy to get into, giving them free reign over a victim’s computer. Downloading sites — Coleman names Kazaa among the worst — can leave a user’s files vulnerable. “Kazaa forces you to install adware and spyware tools that track your internet usage, lets the parent company know what websites you visit, and allows them to target you to what products you would be interested in,” he says. For Coleman, the debate between legal downloading and file sharing boils down to practicality.

“You’re better off getting it from an official download site. It’s worth spending the money for a good quality song rather than getting something else and finding you have a credit card bill for somewhere in Rwanda.”

Downloading isn’t illegal for Canadians, but fans should be aware of the technical risks — and moral issues — streaming out of those pretty, white iPod earbuds.

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