Seventeen percent of U.S. adults with home computers admit they download music from the Internet, and millions more use CD burners to copy compact discs for their friends.
Mitch Glazier of the Recording Industry of America Association estimates that half of the high-speed internet connections these days are being used to copy music for free.
Such piracy, he said, is taking a heavy toll on the recording industry. "Record sales were down 10 percent last year, after growing every single year before. Instead of selling 60 million of the top hits last year, we sold 40 million, a 33 percent drop. We know that 23 percent, almost a quarter of people who are surveyed, say they are no longer buying music because they can download it for free," Mr. Glazier said.
In short, Mr. Glazier said, something must be done or the U.S. music business could be destroyed.
But many of those pirating music on the Internet see themselves as music promoters rather than criminals. They contend the Internet has "democratized" music, enabling many unknown artists rejected by top record companies to be heard by the mass public.
John Simeone, 28, said he copies music on the Internet at times. Does he feel guilty?
"The record industry has gotten so fat off people like me that no, I do not. Only bands they deem have commercial value get signed by them, so basically they shut themselves out of certain markets and they get upset by the fact that people who make up those markets do not buy their products," he said.
Mr. Simeone has admitted advances in technology have made it very easy to copy music.
"Any 12-year-old could do it with the right equipment. Before you had to get your hands on the music that you wanted to copy in a record store, but with these new web sites, you can get a hold of just about anything," he said.
Mr. Glazier is hopeful the even newer technologies will enable the industry to put a halt to piracy. In the meantime, he said, the industry is trying to get the public to understand that piracy is theft, a serious offense.
"Just because music is in the ether does not mean that it is not a product. If you would not walk into Tower Records [store] and steal a CD without paying for it, you should not download it, and steal it without paying for it," Mr. Glazier said.
At a time when U.S. consumers are buying more blank CDs than recorded CDs, the recording industry is desperate to get that message out.