In a discussion of yet another proposal for a new model of online music, I said, "Suing the file-swappers seems to have little deterrent value."

But earlier this week, the Pew Internet and American Life Project (PIP) released a report that disputes my assumption. The report claims that record industry lawsuits drove down the percentage of Americans who downloaded music files by 50% since last spring. The mainstream press picked up the story and trumpeted this as a success for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

I hate to play naysayer, but I'm not sure PIP found the true cause for the decline in downloading.

The PIP report claims that "a fifth of those who say they continue to download or share files online say they are doing so less often because of the suits." It also touted significant-sounding reductions in the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) software like KaZaa, WinMX, BearShare, and Grokster.

But if we look at the report through our skeptic's goggles, we see that it raises key questions. First, how big is this success when only 20% of the still-active cyber-pirates cite fear of lawsuits as a deterrent? And more important, is it accurate to say that the 50% overall drop in downloading is also attributable to the RIAA bogeyman?

I doubt it. But since PIP doesn't release its data until six months from now, we can't quibble with its methodology or analysis.

By now you are probably thinking, "So why do you think people are doing less file-swiping?"

I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that we might have hit the magical inflection point in music downloading, the point where paid services are actually beginning to be perceived as normal -- and more convenient than old-school P2P networks (or even CDs).

Anyone who has used common P2P software knows it isn't exactly free. In fact, it's an enormous pain. Most networks are supported by shady spyware and pop-up purveyors, like whipping boy Claria (formerly Gator). These programs load their invasive software on the backs of many file-sharing programs, slowing users' computers and generally being a nuisance.

On the side of the righteous, we have the first convenient, economical, and popular online music services, such as Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes -- which claims 70% of the market for legal music downloads -- and the black-hat-turned-white Napster. Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) is in the game, too, and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is joining the party. As the cash costs for downloading continue to sink relative to the aggravation costs of pirating software, you can expect more people to pony up for their downloads.

So don't be fooled. The recent successes have come in spite of, not because of, the RIAA's shortsighted legalism.

Does the upcoming battle for music downloads have you hankering to rehash the old brawl between Apple and Microsoft ? Leave the brass knuckles at the door and discourse to your heart's content on Fool discussion boards.

His criticism of the RIAA notwithstanding, Seth Jayson still thinks that illegal file-swiping will get you sent to Heck in a handbasket. He welcomes adulatory missives at