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Napster upgrade makes music scarce

The company is forcing people to upgrade to restricted software that allows only a fraction of the songs previously available. Members say the service is dead.

Napster is forcing people who want to trade music through its file-swapping site to upgrade to a severely restricted version that allows trading of only a fraction of the songs previously available.

As expected, people who signed onto the site Thursday morning were greeted with a message telling them their older software would no longer work.

"All previous versions of Napster have been disabled," the message says. "We're making this change as part of our ongoing effort to comply with the court's orders."

The company wasn't immediately available for comment.

Napster has been embroiled in a legal saga with the Recording Industry Association of America, which sued the service in December 1999, alleging it violated copyrights. In several court decisions at the district and appellate level, judges have agreed. Last summer, US District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled the company was violating copyrights by allowing people to swap music for free and issued an injunction ordering it to stop. Although an appeals court ruled her order overbroad, it also said the company must block some songs.

As a result, Napster installed filters, but music labels complained they weren't strong enough. Still, the number of songs shared by the average Napster user declined to 1.5 by Wednesday morning, down from about 220 in February, according to industry consultants Webnoize.

On Thursday, Napster acknowledged that the number of songs available would decrease even further as a result of its new, more restrictive software. To comply with court rulings, Napster must restrict people's access to songs by major-label musicians. Thus, searches on artists that once yielded pages and pages of songs now turn up only a handful, if any.

"It will take some time for our new filtering technology to accurately identify files; so initially, the number of files available will drop," the Napster posting said. The company added that it hopes the collection will grow again as more people sign on.

The restricted version is the latest example of Napster's efforts to straighten up and fly right. Earlier this year, the company unveiled plans for a subscription service, hoping major music labels would jump on board. And on Tuesday the company announced a deal to sign up European independent labels to its site.

Even so, current and former Napster members were quick to declare the service deceased as a result of the new software.

"Let's just face it, your granddaddy's Napster is long gone," said one person posting on Slashdot.org. "It was good while it lasted, but I think we can finally declare Napster dead!"

"This is NOT the same free-trading Napster I knew," wrote another. "R.I.P. Napster. Have fun RIIA."

Several posters said they had turned to alternative swapping systems before the latest filters, as songs have become more sparse on Napster.

"Not being able to get on the Napster network is no great loss; it has been useless for months," one person wrote.