Napster is back – and this time it’s legal

The song-swapping internet service Napster that terrorised the music industry was relaunched last week after a two-year enforced absence, this time in a new law-abiding format.

The groundbreaking site, which was founded by the then teenager Shawn Fanning and which had an estimated 60 million users at its peak in 2000, was closed down following the successful legal action by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2001. The trade body has since pursued other peer-to-peer (P2P) services (where one computer user swaps music with another), which sprung up in Napster’s wake, and more recently embarked on a new approach by pursuing music fans.

Subscribers will pay for the new service, Napster 2.0, and the available tracks can be transferred to a portable digital player. It is also reported to have a P2P service that allows more or less unrestricted use for users to its library of songs for a monthly subscription

It is unlikely that Napster will recapture its renegade status. “There’s been a relaxation, probably over the last three or four months, with the content owners finally agreeing to licence content for online distribution,” commented Simon Morrissey, a solicitor in Lewis Silkin’s media, brands and technology group. The biggest player in the US market is computer company Apple, with its iTunes service, and since it was launched in April users have downloaded 14 million songs at 99 cents a time.

The financial model for legal sites had been a monthly subscription. “All the content owners were saying it had to be the subscription model, but that appears to have been put on the touchline now. What they’re doing is enabling users to pay per download, which is what users have always wanted,” said Morrissey. “And so the biggest problem the new Napster will have is that there’s now competition in the marketplace for legal content,” he added. However, Morrissey believes that a successful P2P service could be a unique feature.

The RIAA took its battle against piracy to a new level by sending letters to 204 individuals last month saying they will be sued unless they settle copyright infringement charges. The recording industry body suffered a humiliating PR disasters when a Boston grandmother, Sarah Ward, was mistakenly sued. Copyright infringement charges against her were dismissed when she convinced the recording industry that she did not have file-sharing software on her computer.

According to Morrissey, the case revealed the evidential problems in identifying individuals from their internet protocol (IP) addresses. IP addresses identify the person who subscribes for internet access, but they do not necessarily identify the person engaged in illegal activity.

“There’s always a problem if you’re trying to sue your customer base, and the publicity hasn’t been good for the music industry,” said Morrissey. “Even the people in the industry don’t really agree with using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And that’s what they’re doing by going for individual users just because they’ve hit a brick wall in pursuing those who’ve developed these products.”