Music download system Napster is back - but this time it's totally legal

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The Independent Online

Napster, the name that triggered the volcanic eruption of free music sharing, went back online yesterday but this time as an entirely legal, paid-for, one-way download service.

Two years after being shut down by the courts, and a year after it was bought by the software company Roxio for just $5m (£3m), Napster relaunched with half a million songs from the major labels that were once its sworn enemy.

The songs are on offer for 99 cents each, or $9.99 for an album. The service is presently available only in the US.

The anarchic free system of the original, used by up to 60 million people at its height, attracted the ire of musicians and music industry alike. In two lawsuits the heavy metal band Metallica and the rap artist Dr Dre named and had banned more than 580,000 people they said were downloading their music illegally through the service, and Eminem said he would beat up anyone he found putting his songs online.

But the original Napster also had supporters among musicians including Courtney Love, Janis Ian and Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, which put Bob Marley on the map. He praised the system's potential as a promotional tool.

Unlike the anarchic free system of the original, in which people could download MP3 music files that would play on any computer, the new version uses a special file system that cannot be shared with other people. That may create a problem because the format will not play on the most popular digital music player, Apple Computer's iPod. There will also be limits on how many copies of a particular song can be "burnt" on to CD . However Chris Gorog, Roxio's chairman and chief executive, said it would not be a problem. "Ninety-nine per cent or more of our Napster users will never bump their heads against any usage rules," he said.

Bruce Tognazzini, an expert in computer usability, said yesterday:"It could work, but it's going to be an uphill battle because everybody has gone and learnt to use the new systems."

The shutdown of the original Napster inspired the creation of decentralised systems such as KaZaA, which unlike Napster have no central record of their users or what files are swapped. Last month an American judge ruled that KaZaA is legal because it could be used to swap uncopyrighted information. In response, the US record industry is now suing hundreds of individual users it says have committed piracy by offering or downloading files online.

Roxio is betting the revived Napster brand name will help set its service apart from the bevy of other digital music retailers that have launched since Apple Computer introduced its US-only iTunes Music Store in April.