(By Hannah Karp 9.13.16 for The Wall Street Journal)
Earlier this year, a federal judge shut down the free music-download site Mp3skull.com and awarded $22 million to the record companies that had sued it for copyright infringement. But Mp3skull.onl, which has surfaced in its place, is touting a service even more worrisome to the music industry: stream ripping.
That practice, which involves turning a song or music video played on a streaming service into a permanent download, is growing fast among young music fans, even as other forms of music piracy wane. The site’s community manager didn’t respond to requests for comment.
As music-streaming services blossomed over the past decade, so have mobile apps and sites allowing users to create MP3 files from songs streamed on free services such as Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube. Fans can listen to the songs without YouTube’s ads—and without having to buy the songs or pay for a subscription service such as Spotify AB and Apple Inc.’s Apple Music.
While streams can potentially be ripped from any music-streaming service—paid or unpaid—the most popular sites and apps allow users to convert YouTube videos into ad-free, audio-only downloads with a single click.
According to new data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 49% of internet users between the ages of 16 and 24 reported stream ripping within the six months ended in April, up from 41% in the same period a year prior. Meanwhile, 30% of internet users of all ages reported stream ripping this year, a 10% increase over last year.
The trend is particularly troubling because the music industry—which has lost 60% of its value since its peak in 2000 and has barely expanded over the past five years—is banking on paid streaming services to fuel its growth.
YouTube’s terms of service forbid users from downloading, reproducing and distributing its content without its written consent, and its process of taking down the sites that violate these terms is improving, a company spokeswoman said. In some cases YouTube also takes legal action against policy offenders, while Google’s search results demote sites that receive large numbers of copyright complaints.
Apple and Alphabet have generally been removing stream-ripping apps from their app stores when they receive complaints, but nearly identical apps tend to appear in their place.
Youtube-mp3.org is a popular site, with hundreds of millions of monthly visitors. Apple’s app store has carried apps such as TubePlayer, which it removed in August after complaints, while Alphabet’s Google Play store offers a range of “tube” downloading apps, though many apps caution that they either cannot or shouldn’t be used on YouTube videos.
YouTube said that “once notified of an infringing tool, or service that violates our Terms of Service, we take action.”
“It has now become a major problem,” said Recording Industry Association of America spokesman Jonathan Lamy, whose record-label trade group has been filing complaints to remove stream ripping sites from the internet and pressuring advertisers not to support such platforms.
With the top 30 stream-ripping sites receiving 900 million visitors in July, by the RIAA’s count, the practice “displaces lawful sales and streams, depriving artists, songwriters and labels of the royalties they deserve and undercutting the licensed digital services, too,” Mr. Lamy said.
The industry has made headway in combating the original type of online file sharing that tipped CD sales into decline, with downloads from so-called peer-to-peer sites falling by about 50% over the past 12 years, according to research firm MusicWatch Inc.
But stream ripping is proving harder to combat. Whereas in the past, experts have often been able to trace unauthorized music online to an original source that they could block, stream-ripping sites source tunes from legitimate streaming services. YouTube, for example, has licensing agreements with the major record labels as well as protection from liability under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
One of the reasons stream ripping appears to be gaining so much traction is that many offenders don’t think they are doing anything wrong, anti-piracy experts say. In a report earlier this year by MusicWatch, 73% of survey respondents who reported stream ripping or using other illegal music apps said they assumed their actions were legitimate.
Corrections & Amplifications:
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 49% of internet users between the ages of 16 and 24 reported stream ripping within the six months ended in April. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated those internet users had reported stream ripping in the first six months of the year.