LONDON British and Dutch police shut down one of the world's largest sources of illegal pre-release music on Tuesday and arrested a 24-year-old man.
The raids in Amsterdam and the northeast English city of Middlesbrough followed a two-year investigation into a members-only Web site, www.OiNK.cd, which allowed users to upload and download albums before their release.
Pre-release leaks have become one of the most damaging forms of piracy for the music industry which is struggling with falling sales. Recorded music sales have fallen by more than a third in the last six years, the industry says.
An estimated 180,000 members paid 'donations' via debit or credit cards for OiNK's catalogue of music and other media.
Industry experts said the site had provided access to more than 60 albums before their release this year alone.
"OiNK was central to the illegal distribution of pre-release music online," said Jeremy Banks, the head of the anti-piracy unit at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which helped police with their investigation.
"This was not a case of friends sharing music for pleasure. This was a worldwide network that got hold of music they did not own the rights to and posted it online."
Pre-release piracy is regarded as particularly damaging because it leads to unauthorized mixes or unfinished versions of artists' recordings appearing months before they are meant to.
Often it is those in the industry, who get promotional or demonstration copies of albums before their release, who are involved in leaking them to file-sharing sites.
British police said they arrested the 24-year-old on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and infringement of copyright law. Dutch police seized servers and other computer equipment.
"While some might view this type of act as a victimless crime, there's no such thing," said Chief Superintendent Mark Braithwaite of the Cleveland police.
"The cost of an enterprise such as this will be added to the cost of any legitimate purchases further down the line."
Artists are experimenting with new ways of distributing their music to fans, including providing it free over the Internet. British band Radiohead released its latest album on the Web and invited fans to pay a donation to download it.
A raid in Sweden last year shut down an Internet site that police said was a major source of music and film piracy.