Newest Napster keeps users honest

Napster may be trying to deflect the legal heat by adding Microsoft's piracy-proof Windows Media Audio to its latest beta. Is tougher copyright protection in the works?

Napster's new beta 6 version lets users download their favorite tunes in the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which has copyright protection built in, according to Microsoft officials.

"I suspect this is Napster's way of throwing off Recording Industry Association of America (which has sued Napster for copyright infringement) by saying, 'See, we can comply with a legal format?' " David Grant, editor of MP3.freedom.com, said in an email interview. Not at all, said Napster CEO Hank Barry.

"Napster supports the media formats that are popular among its users," Barry said. "WMA is a widely used codec offering a large base of user audio content. Napster plans to release future versions that support the sharing of other media types, such as .doc, .pdf and Flash animation."

He added that Napster was part of a music and technology industry consortium working to develop the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a work-in-progress that aims to prevent piracy in any format.

"We intend to support those security measures that become widely adopted and are consistent with privacy and a convenient user experience," was how Barry put it.

"Napster still plays and supports the exchange of MP3 files," said Kevin Unangst, group product manager for Microsoft's digital music division, adding that some customers want to download music in the WMA format.

Other MP3 players, including Winamp, Sonique, and RealPlayer -- with its own proprietary music format, RealAudio -- also use WMA technology, Unangst said. "This is no different."

"The general feeling among Napster users is that this is no big deal," Grant said. After all, why would users choose WMA over a freely available open standard?

"It should be painfully obvious by now to the entire world that MP3 is not going away and the format IS the de facto standard for Internet audio," Grant said. "The only thing WMA has going for it is in the video sector. Otherwise, most users could care less, especially since Microsoft is pushing it down everyone's throat."

Microsoft also has deals with EMI Music, Sony Music, BMG, Universal and Time Warner to sell music online in the WMA format. It's a natural alliance for two industries built on intellectual property, Unangst said.

"Consumers want software, consumers want music, and the vast majority of them are honest," Unangst said. "We need to provide the technology for honest users to get access to the content they care about."

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