Napster Updates its Beta

SAN FRANCISCO (05/16/2000) - Napster Inc. has quietly released an updated Napster 2.0 Beta 6 upgrade of its controversial digital music swapping software. It adds a host of community features and support for copyright-friendly Windows Media Audio files, not just the popular MP3 format.

The newest Napster, posted Sunday, also comes with an instant messaging client.

This lets you easily exchange messages with those with whom you're sharing music files. Another feature lets you automatically begin listening to music files as they are downloaded onto your computer.

Napster declines comment on the upgrade, which can be found at its home page and in PCWorld.com's FileWorld section.

Industry watchers suggest this beta is an attempt by Napster to position its product as a community network, not a digital music piracy tool.

"The more services that it adds that are not piracy-specific, the more it bolsters Napster's argument that it's acting as an (Internet service provider) and not a music piracy haven," says Malcolm Maclachlan, an analyst with the research firm IDC.

Legal Battle Still Brews

Napster is in the midst of a high-profile court battle with the Recording Industry Association of America and heavy-metal band Metallica. The challengers say Napster is responsible for massive violations of music copyrights.

Napster claims it is a "mere conduit" of information, like an ISP or a phone network. It declines responsibility for copyrighted material it might transmit, as long as the service takes reasonable steps to keep copyrighted material off its network.

Earlier in May, a federal judge ruled Napster couldn't use that defense because it hasn't taken adequate steps to prevent "repeat offenders" from using its site. Last week, in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Napster blocked 317,000 customers from its network for allegedly swapping Metallica songs.

The New Napster

The latest beta of Napster makes it easier to locate copyright-free digital music. One feature lets you search for a well-known band, and Napster returns links to copyright-free songs by artists who are part of the same musical genre as the band you sought.

The Beta 6 version of Napster also adds some ease-of-use features: a Help section and a simplified search field. Advanced search options are still available.

Napster now supports Microsoft's WMA codex, which rivals the dominant MP3 digital music format. Unlike MP3, WMA files have built-in security that prevents copyright infringements.

"Certainly, it's going be an early test of the (WMA) technology, but certainly not the first," Maclachlan says.

BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, and Sony Music have announced they will offer downloadable digital music in WMA format. Napster is the largest digital music hub, but CuteMX and other music-swapping sites let visitors search and swap WMA files.

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