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 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.
An estimated 180,000 members of the site paid "donations" via debit or credit cards, ensuring that they could continue to access the site and its catalogue of music and other media.
The site provided access to more than 60 albums before their release this year, according to industry experts.
"OiNK was central to the illegal distribution of pre-release music online," said Jeremy Banks, head of the anti-piracy unit at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which helped in the 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 leaks have become one of the most damaging forms of piracy for the music industry which is struggling with falling sales worldwide -- recorded music sales have fallen by more than a third in the last six years, the industry says.
As opposed to illegal sharing of music after its release, pre-release piracy is seen as particularly damaging because it leads to unauthorised mixes or unfinished versions of artists' recordings appearing on line.
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 Web sites such as OiNK.
British police said they arrested the 24-year-old on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and infringement of copyright law. He was the only person arrested in the raids. Dutch police seized servers and other computer equipment.
The shutting down of OiNK comes at a time when artists are themselves experimenting with new ways of distributing their music, sometimes for free over the Internet.
Radiohead released its latest album on the Internet and invited fans to pay a donation to download it.
Such techniques have frustrated the music industry which is struggling to come up with ways to regenerate revenue.