Songs from Robbie Williams (news)'s CD "Escapology" are appearing on free file-sharing Web sites days before the release hits the stores.
But there's a catch -- many of the tracks, which Reuters heard on popular track-trading sites Morpheus MusicCity and Kazaa, appear to be decoys.
In some cases, the songs play for under 30 seconds before fading into silence. In other cases, they play without sound.
The practice of seeding the free file-trading networks with bogus tracks has quietly become a standard weapon in the major music labels' arsenal against online song piracy, a phenomenon they blame for dramatically eating into recorded music sales.
A spokeswoman for Williams's London-based record label EMI (EMI.L) declined to comment on the matter. The international release of "Escapology" is November 18.
EMI, which has made a huge bet on Williams, signing him to a mega-80 million pound ($126.4 million) record contract last month, cannot afford to take chances with piracy.
Since October 25, fans have been able to go to the performer's web site to listen to select tracks from "Escapology." That may explain why some songs, such as the single "Feel," appear in their entirety on the unofficial networks, but it would not explain the appearance of partial songs, technology specialists say.
According to a new study by UK market research firm Informa Media Group, global music sales are expected to continue to fall until 2005 due in part to rampant online piracy.
The labels have gone on the offensive to stem the decline, looking at ways to combat the growing consumer craze of downloading songs for free from the Internet and burning them onto CDs.
Publicly, the record companies will not discuss whether they are engaging in flooding the Internet sites with bogus songs.
But industry sources say it has been happening for the past year, with decoy tracks of top-selling recording artists Eminem (news - web sites) and Carlos Santana appearing on so-called peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus in recent months.
ONE IN THREE IS A DECOY
"It's very common. It goes on all the time," said Wayne Rosso, president of file-sharing service Grokster. He estimated as many as one-third of the music tracks found on major file-sharing services, including Grokster, are spoofs.
"They all hire outside companies to seed the P2P networks," Rosso said of the major record firms.
It is not just record labels. Marc Morgenstern, CEO of New York-based start-up Overpeer, told Reuters on Friday he has contracts with film companies, software makers, video game publishers and music firms to distribute hoax files onto the Net.
"It's just exploded. Right now, we are protecting thousands of files, content of all types, but mainly music," he said, declining to identify his clients or the files involved.
He said each month Internet users unwittingly download or attempt to download hundreds of millions of decoy files masquerading as video games, songs or films, that originate from Overpeer.
Because of the nature of the song-swapping, a decoy can rapidly spread across the Internet to a host of file-trading sites in a matter of hours.
One common ploy is to record a short portion of a song like a chorus, and have it repeat over and over again. Or, it could be a file that continuously breaks its connection with a host preventing the completion of a download.
Similar tactics are used to flood the networks with partial versions of video games and looping movie trailers, he said.
"We are very careful to never inflict anything close to a negative impact on a user's PC," he added.