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Put March 21 in your diary, if you want to download music for free - and do so legally...

The music industry is due to make its biggest stand against the rise in online piracy on March 21 with the return of DIGITAL DOWNLOAD DAY, in a desperate bid to stop the explosion of free file-sharing sites.

OD2, a UK-based company co-founded by Peter Gabriel, have teamed up with major record labels and online music retailers such as HMV, MSN and Freeserve in an attempt to promote the legal downloading of music.

The scheme will allow Internet users to download up to 30 tracks for free from a playlist of around 150,000. A pilot scheme run last October was met with unexpected success – and crippled Internet servers – as over 500,000 users tried to access the free downloads.

The promotion has been extended to include France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands this time, and OD2 have increased their server capacity tenfold in order to cope with the predicted rise in the volume of site “hits”.

But it is doubtful whether such a scheme will work, as illegal downloading has evolved from its underground origins into a worldwide phenomenon, where the majority of music fans regularly access and burn pirated CDs. The rise in online piracy shows little sign of slowing down, despite reportedly costing the industry £3.1bn in lost revenue last year and a 10 per cent drop in sales.

In comparison with the half-million users who logged on for the pilot Digital Download Day, it has been estimated that 4.5m people are accessing around one billion pirated tracks at any one time.

A spokesperson for OD2 said that the day will hopefully highlight legal ways of obtaining music on the web: “Working with record companies means that the integrity of the files is guaranteed, whereas illegal files are often corrupted by viruses and unreliable. Subscribing also ensures that the artist is paid royalties for their work.”

The announcement of the first Digital Download Day follows Robbie Williams ‘ comments promoting online piracy. Earlier this week, Williams , who recently signed an £80m contract with EMI said, “I think it’s great, I really do. There is nothing anyone can do about it. I am sure my record label would hate me saying it, and my manager and my accountant.”

Jay Berman, head of the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry, has predicted that 600,000 jobs in the European music industry are at risk if record companies do not start to take action soon.

Internet users interested in Digital Download Day are able to pre-register to avoid the meltdown experienced last October at www.digitaldownloadday.com.