Can free music survive in an age of pay for play?

ITworld.com |  Business

No amount of popularity or disclaimers will protect Internet companies facilitating the sharing of copyrighted digital files on the Internet. The music labels have made that clear in their bloody fight against embattled music-swapping Web site Napster Inc.

So it's strange timing that a number of Napster alternatives are joining the party with new free-music services just when that party threatens to end. One of those alternatives, a crude Web site cluttered with disclaimers and warnings called MusicCity.com Inc., is preparing to take its service to the mainstream any day now.

With 30 servers for storing files scattered around the country, accessible through a number of popular file-searching programs, MusicCity.com bills itself as a bigger and better Napster. But how and why the company is entering the file-sharing market now is yet to be determined.

"We're not ready to make a statement," said Steve Griffin, the long-time music industry executive who founded MusicCity.com. "We'll have some announcements in the next week or so."

But in the next week or so, the market for sharing copyrighted files freely, whether they be music, video or other content, may be history. With legal maneuvers threatening to end the popular peer-to-peer trend trumpeted by Napster and its users -- while a host of major announcements were made this week by the big five record labels and "legitimate" digital music business -- there may be no room for MusicCity.com to execute its service, whatever that turns out to be.

For now, people close to the company will only say that MusicCity.com has "every intention" of being a legal service. Borrowing from the argument of its early industry explorers, MusicCity.com notes on its Web site that it "will not be liable to any party for direct, indirect, special or other consequential or incidental damages arising directly or indirectly from the use of this web site or its Network."

Liability may be inherently difficult to avoid for the company if copyrighted files do end up in its system. Similar to Napster, the bulk of MusicCity.com's business involves its central servers, which act as storage points for lists of the thousands of files that pass between the computers of the service's users. While MusicCity.com warns its users that sharing copyrighted files is illegal, such disclaimers have proven ineffective on other sites.

With a word-of-mouth marketing campaign, MusicCity.com is creeping up the ranks with its vast database of listed files. The site doesn't offer a way to search those files, rather it is part of the popular OpenNap network, and users can navigate MusicCity.com's stored files through Napigator, Aimster and other search software.

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