New Napster gets ready for test drive

A test version of Napster's new subscription-based file-swapping service will be available shortly, the company said.

A test version of Napster's new subscription-based file-swapping service will be available shortly, the company said.

Napster is letting fans try out a free beta version of the software before it launches a new paid model designed to appease the recording industry, which has sued the current free service out of existence.

"We're hard at work creating an environment that will sustain the Napster community over the long term," the company said in a letter to beta testers. "We expect that Napster will start small and grow, just as it did when Shawn first released it two years ago."

Shawn is Shawn Fanning, who started the wildly popular file-swapping system, which attracted tens of millions of consumers before a series of court challenges by the Recording Industry Association of America succeeded in shutting down the service.

Napster is appealing the latest decision by federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who last week ruled the service must adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward the swapping of copyrighted works. During a closed court hearing, Patel told Napster attorneys that the service's 99.4 percent compliance rate was not enough--it must reach 100 percent.

Meanwhile, Napster said its new subscription model will collect a small monthly fee and ensure that "over half of what you pay Napster will go directly to the artists, songwriters and other rights holders whose works are transferred between members of the Napster community."

Napster did not reveal the cost of the new service, but in the past it has estimated that customers will have to pay between US$5 and US$10 per month, depending on how many songs they want access to.

However, it will be a long time, if ever, before the new model resembles the Napster service of old. For one thing, the number of songs traded through the service is determined by the number of people using the system. Thus, if only a fraction of the people who used Napster for free are now willing to pay for it, then only a small portion of the songs that once zipped across the system will be available.

What's more, Napster must obtain the rights to the songs. So far, it's succeeded in landing a series of indie labels, and it's struck a provisional deal with MusicNet, a coalition of some of the major music companies. But other major labels have rebuffed Napster's advances. In addition, the company is abandoning the popular MP3 format in favor of a new format, which right now is known as .nap.

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