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EMI dips toe in music-sharing waters

The record label takes a tentative step toward digital music sharing, hoping that a tightly controlled model of file sharing will help boost sales.

Record label EMI Recorded Music is taking a tentative step toward digital music sharing, hoping that a tightly controlled model of file sharing will help boost sales.

The company is working with HitHive, a start-up that provides the online music storage lockers for Sprint PCS' MP3 phone, to allow small groups of people to share temporary access to their online music collections.

"We hope this is better than the current state of affairs," said EMI new media Vice President Ted Cohen, citing the uncontrolled swapping on Napster and the lawsuits against that company. "Allowing music to be shared in a structured way is a good thing."

The service will not provide the sprawling, unregulated file swapping seen in Napster and its clones. Under the HitHive model, individuals will be able to open an online music storage locker to 25 friends, allowing those people to listen to the songs. The outside listeners could listen to each song up to 10 times before losing access, however.

Even that minimal amount of sharing--which more resembles inviting a friend over to listen to music than it does Napster--marks a step forward for any major music label, however. EMI was among those labels that sued MP3.com for offering an unauthorized music locker service that lacked sharing features last year.

EMI has stepped out in front of its peers in making overtures to new technologies before. Last year, they were the first to make some public overtures to peer-to-peer file-swapping services, teaming with Aimster and Angry Coffee to promote the newest album by Radiohead. The label stopped short of providing actual music to be traded over those services, however.

Like many online music services in their early days, this feature will be limited. Consumers will be able to "trade" access to only a select number of EMI songs that have been approved for trading. At this point, that number is in the thousands, but will grow as the label gains legal sign-off from publishers and artists, said Bill Bassett, HitHive's vice president of marketing.

Because HitHive does not offer its services directly to consumers, the "open locker" sharing feature won't be immediately available. Current customers include Sprint PCS and *CD; the service should find its way to those customers by early summer, Bassett said.