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Napster launches beta version of new secure service

Napster will launch a test version of its new copyright-compliant online music service Thursday, months after legal action brought by the recording industry forced a shutdown of the wildly popular file-sharing network.

The test or “beta” version, which lacks content from the major music labels, will not be open to the public. Instead, it will be offered to 20,000 people randomly selected from a group of more than 2 million users who e-mailed Napster showing interest in participating in the beta test.

More than 100,000 files will be available on Napster for the beta trial. All are currently licensed to the company for free by the mostly small, independent labels who have agreed to work with the service.

Konrad Hilbers, the chief executive of Napster, said in an interview he expected to sign deals with some or all of the major music labels soon and relaunch the full version of Napster sometime toward the end of the first quarter.

“We don’t feel total resistance from any of the majors,” he said. However, he also said the full version would not relaunch unless it did have major label content to offer.

The beta test will be free, but the full version, should the relaunch take place, will cost somewhere between $5 and $10 a month, Hilbers said.

That fee will allow the user 50 downloads per month with no limit on the total number of downloaded files the user can have at any one time.


Napster will offer two types of files: standard MP3 music files and “.nap” files, which Napster founder Shawn Fanning said were essentially MP3’s with a protective layer that prevent the files from being copied off the host computer or burned onto CDs.

While the new Napster looks in many ways exactly like the old versions of the software, Fanning said 98 percent of the code behind the program was rewritten to improve its various functions.

Those features include a music player, chat rooms, instant messaging, and a “buy” button that allows users to click on a song and buy the related album from music retail site CDNow.com.

CDNow is owned by Bertelsmann AG, which is a major investor in Napster. Hilbers, a former top executive of Bertelsmann’s BMG Entertainment, was named the CEO of Napster in July.

Napster has been dormant since the summer of 2001 after the major labels sued the company, accusing it of facilitating copyright infringement by allowing digital versions of their artists’ songs to be shared for free, in many cases thousands of times each.

That suit has dragged through the federal courts since December 1999, although Napster’s service had been completely sidelined since July as a result of an injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in March.

The injunction barred the trade of any copyrighted material on Napster.

Eventually, Fanning said, Napster is planning to offer contextual information with each song, including an artist discography, track listing from the related albums and staff recommendations on other related music.

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