German investigators have charged 3,500 people with illegal music sharing, in the biggest single sweep of its kind, the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) said today.

The file sharers face criminal and civil prosecution and may be asked to pay damage claims of several thousand euros each. On average, file sharers are being charged €2,500 (about £1,700), said the IFPI.

German authorities helped identify the file sharers, who were using the eDonkey network to share thousands of music files. eDonkey software allows users to find and share files with other eDonkey users.

German police searched 130 premises for evidence in the investigations.

The IFPI blames file sharers for a drop in music sales. In Germany, sales of music CDs fell by a third over the past five years, the IFPI said. However, recent research revealed that legal sales of digital music worldwide tripled in 2005.

The German lawsuits follow the IFPI's announcement last month that within about five months it had sued 2,000 illegal file sharers, mainly in Europe.

In addition to music associations such as the IFPI, movie organisations are also stepping up their campaigns against illegal file sharing. In February, Belgian authorities arrested the operator of a server hosting and sharing millions of files, including movies, software and music.

Despite the increase in suits against illegal file sharers, the bulk of internet use continues to be by P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing platforms. Late last year, CacheLogic said that such platforms account for 60 percent of all internet traffic and that eDonkey is the most popular P2P file-sharing software.