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Rock around block

U softens position as Napster denies tracks

NEW YORK — Napster already is close to fulfilling its recent promise to block 1 million copyright-infringing song files from its database, but the effort isn’t likely to significantly limit users’ access to the millions of songs the service offers.

Yet even as the embattled file-sharing service struggled for its life in the face of an impending court injunction, news emerged that Universal Music Group, Napster’s most aggressive opponent to date, just may consider cutting a deal — under the right circumstances.

Napster began late Sunday to block file names supplied to it by “a number of different sources,” including record labels and music publishers, said a source close to the situation. But the million blocked files represent far fewer actual unique songs, since each song potentially can be represented by scores of different filenames, each a subtle variation from the last.

Warming trend?

As Napster struggled to make a good-faith gesture to the music industry, one of the biz’s biggest power brokers showed signs of thawing toward the digital pariah.

According to wire reports, Vivendi Universal topper Jean-Marie Messier said at a conference in London that Duet, a digital distribution service being developed by UMG and Sony Music, may license its songs to Napster — provided the new system it is developing offers security and compensates rights holders.

Comments are a departure from U’s stance as the most adamant holdout against a settlement with the rogue file-sharing service, and could augur well for the possibility of a settlement between Napster and the industry.

Such a settlement likely will be a top priority for Napster as it and the music industry head into their next meeting with court-appointed mediator Judge Eugene Lynch, which sources say is scheduled for Friday.

The name game

Meanwhile, industry watchers say some enterprising Napster users already have begun hacking their way around even the limited filtration system Napster has put into place. By slightly changing the names of the offending files, many Napsterites have found they can fly under the radar and continue to swap the songs freely.

And even without a conscious effort by users to flout the system, Napster appears to be having a hard time cutting off access to songs entirely.

A search conducted Monday on the Napster service for the Metallica hit “Enter Sandman” turned up no songs by that exact title. However, the system returned dozens of files labeled “Enter the Sandman” and “Sandman Enter,” which, when opened, turned out to be “Enter Sandman.”

Napster CEO Hank Barry unveiled the file-blocking technology at a hearing in San Francisco District Court on Friday to determine the scope of the injunction to be levied against the company by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel.

System slowdown

The move was an abrupt about-face of Napster’s long-standing contention that it was unable to block individual song files. Even as he made the announcement Friday, Barry noted that the technology was a significant drain on the system’s resources, slowing searches and generally gumming up the works.

Company began targeting files for blockage at 10 p.m. (PST) on Sunday, working off lists from rights holders that provided song titles, the file name or names in question and proof that they held the copyright on the work, said a source close to the situation.

Songs on the list, which included works by Metallica, Jimi Hendrix and Pearl Jam, were to be blocked within three business days of notification. Once blocked, the titles simply would stop coming up in all subsequent Napster searches.

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