Universal throws Napster a lifeline

If Napster respects copyright and enforces decent encryption, the world's largest music publisher might let it licence songs

Napster got a rare taste of good news yesterday as Vivendi, owner of Universal Music, announced that it might still be willing to work with the song-swap service if it survives its court battles.

Vivendi's chief executive, Jean-Marie Messier, explained that his company would be prepared to licence its music to a legitimate version of Napster, if it was able to demonstrate that it respected copyright and operated secure encryption. Speaking at the Financial Times New Media and Broadcasting conference in London, Messier said that Universal would consider licensing its material to any online platform that satisfied this test.

"Why should we not be on Napster in a couple of months, once it has demonstrated that it respects those two criteria alongside MSN, Yahoo! or Wanadoo?" demanded Messier, adding that his priority is to get Universal's content onto as many platforms as possible.

Last month, Universal and Sony announced that they were planning to launch a rival to Napster. The service -- called Duet -- will let music lovers access digital music, either by subscription or by paying for individual song downloads. Universal is the world's largest music publisher, and Messier said last week that he hoped Duet could carry 50 percent of the world's music.

In an attempt to avoid closure, Napster announced on Friday that it would start removing songs from its service. By using filter software that can block out individual songs, it hopes to persuade the record labels that are suing it that it is now respecting copyright.

However, Napster still faces the prospect of closure. Its offer of $1bn to the music industry was not successful, and many of its fans are already beginning to use other peer-to-peer swapping services.

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