Napster Previews New Service

Friday, January 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Attempting to resurrect the Internet file-swapping service, Napster officials say they're just weeks away from relaunching for paying subscribers.

The company that revolutionized music distribution _ only to get slammed and crippled by music industry lawsuits _ is still not offering music from major labels, however.

On Thursday, Napster launched six weeks of testing by 20,000 volunteers in the United States.

Using improved file identification technology, Napster can now weed out unauthorized tunes and concentrate on providing paying customers music the company has the rights to traffic, said chief executive Konrad Hilbers.

In a telephone interview, Hilbers could offer neither an official launch date nor a set price for the service, though he said he was looking to offer 50 downloads per month for a price in the range of $5 to $10.

``The momentum that Napster created was definitely also in part driven by the depth of content that was available,'' Hilbers said. ``We currently think that we are so close to getting all major label content.''

The new Napster has a similar look and feel to the old, with a few visual improvements including a free-floating software player that can be dragged around the screen.

Instead of trading unprotected MP3s of popular music as before, users of the new Napster will be swapping .nap files, playable only on the desktop of the computer on which the software is installed.

Some unprotected MP3 files also will be available, though they'll likely come from small bands looking to make a name for themselves by distributing their music for free, said Shawn Fanning, who created Napster in 1999 during his freshman year at Northeastern University.

After becoming a bazaar for the free exchange of copyright music, Napster was hit by music industry lawsuits and forced offline by a federal judge. The recording industry sued Napster in 1999, alleging copyright infringement.

Napster has made offers to settle the suit, but the litigation is still pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wooing new and former users to the paid service stands as Napster's greatest challenge and the Redwood City-based company now has competition, chiefly from two industry-backed ventures.

MusicNet is the joint venture of RealNetworks and the BMG, EMI and Warner record labels. Pressplay offers content from Sony and Universal and EMI.

Both services launched last month, but neither would say how many subscribers it has attracted. Bertelsmann AG, the parent company of BMG, is Napster's primary financial backer.