False start for Qtrax's 'free' music service

Music labels deny deal with file-sharing firm

Music fans could be given the chance to legally download songs for free via a new service called Qtrax, an online file-sharing tool that promises unlimited, free music downloads. That is if they can actually download the program.

Qtrax will allow users can tap into file-sharing networks to search for music, which can then be stored indefinitely on PCs and transferred on to portable music players. However, downloads will feature DRM (digital-rights management) copy-protection technology that prevent users from burning copies to a CD.

The service claims it will offers in excess of 30m tracks and will use revenue from advertising to pay licensing fees to EMI, Universal and Warner - the three major record labels that signed deals with the website. However, all three labels have denied that contracts had been signed, putting a potentially large dent in the promised catalogue of songs. A spokesman for Universal, the largest of the labels, confirmed to that it was "in discussion" with Qtrax, but that no agreement was in place.

In addition, the website has been periodically down since going live at midnight last night, citing overwhelming demand, so many users are unable to even download the program needed to use the service.

Among its claims, Qtrax has also promised that the downloads will be playable on Apple iPods and Macs as early as March. iPods can only play back unrestricted MP3 files or tracks with Apple's proprietary version of DRM, called Fair-Play, which Apple has been resistant to license to other online music retailers.

Qtrax claims to "have had a technical breakthrough, which enables songs to be put on an iPod without any interference from Fair-Play". According to Qtrax's president and chief executive Allan Klepfisz, Apple has had nothing to do with their breakthrough.

The website also guarantees that users will never download spyware, adware or bogus audio files that are often found on file-sharing networks. Music video downloads, reviews and lyrics will also be available on the site.

"This is a way to get the stuff for free and not take the risk of having the recording industry show up at your doorstep with a six-figure lawsuit," commented Rob Enderle, a technology analyst.

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Carrie-Ann Skinner

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