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Music label widens door to Net

EMI Group strikes an unusually sweeping set of deals that expand what consumers can legally do with EMI tunes accessed via an online service.

Record label EMI Group has significantly loosened the reins on how its music can be distributed on the Internet, striking a set of deals that expand what consumers can legally do with EMI tunes accessed via an online service.

The label announced Wednesday that it has signed new distribution agreements with nine Net music companies, giving them the right to let customers make permanent downloads of songs, transfer songs to portable devices such as MP3 players and burn CDs of songs downloaded from the services. The names of the nine services are expected to be announced later in the day.

The deals make an unusually sweeping statement in an industry that has typically inched forward with single, very limited business arrangements between record labels and individual Internet companies. But EMI executives said the agreements are still in line with the label's traditional approach.

"Our strategy has always been to get our artists out there in the ways that consumers want," said Jay Samit, senior vice president of new media at EMI. "This is an evolutionary step."

The EMI deals help fill several gaps in the often-confusing patchwork of rights and features that the young Net music services are able to offer their subscribers. Still, because other record labels have provided only inconsistent access to their music, the authorized subscription services continue to lack much that analysts and customers say they need to succeed.

Only Listen.com's Rhapsody, for example, has won rights to offer music from all five major labels, but even it lacks access to songs that are blocked by publishers' or artists' concerns. And no service has rights to let consumers burn their own CDs using music from all five labels. Individual deals are routinely announced that give companies the power to offer some new services, but the business remains confusing and incomplete.

None of the Net music companies disclose subscriber figures, but the pace of distribution deals through ISPs and third-party Web sites has begun speeding up in recent months. This week, FullAudio announced that its service would be available through cable Internet service Charter Communications. Listen.com made a similar announcement with Cablevision, another cable company.

EMI said the new rights would be extended to Alliance Entertainment, Ecast, FullAudio, Liquid Audio, Listen.com, MusicNet, Pressplay, Roxio and Streamwaves. The companies could begin offering the services Dec. 1, EMI said.

The services will be allowed to offer subscribers the ability to burn songs to a CD three times, and transfer songs an unlimited number of times to two separate portable devices, as well as download songs to a hard drive. Each of the services has different pricing policies, but those that offer the ability to burn CDs typically charge extra for the feature.

EMI will also offer digital versions of singles for sale through the Net services at the same time the singles are released for radio play.

The mass licensing is unlikely to push other labels to act more quickly, however.

"EMI has clearly been most aggressive in licensing deals, so to see them leading the way on this one is not a surprise," said P.J. McNealy, research director for GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research group. "But the interests in (offering) secured downloads will vary label by label."