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Radio Free Virgin adds song recorder

The Net radio service adds a restricted recording feature to its media player, hoping to cash in on Napster's popularity without the legal woes.

    Internet radio service Radio Free Virgin on Monday said it has added a recording feature to its digital media player, hoping to cash in on the popularity of free music-swapping service Napster without running into its legal woes.

    Zach Zalon, general manager of Radio Free Virgin, said the new feature lets music fans record songs broadcast over the company's 42 online channels for playback online and off. But the feature also includes restrictions aimed at protecting copyright holders.

    Saved audio files can only play back through a Radio Free Virgin player, preventing illegal file-swapping and duplication, he said. And unlike with Napster, artists and labels will be compensated for any usage of their material from the outset.

    "We believe (the record feature) will give artists more exposure to fans. And what it will do for the music fans is give them new opportunities to experience the music in a variety of ways," Zalon said. "And eventually for record labels, we believe this will stimulate sales."

    The recording feature is being implemented as Net radio emerges as a possible alternative to Napster, which is battling copyright-infringement lawsuits with the major record labels, lawsuits that could force it out of business. Last month, Internet research-and-development company The Audio Mill launched a new service, now called BitBop, that lets music fans record songs onto a computer from a list of thousands of Internet radio stations. A new plug-in for Winamp, dubbed Streamripper, lets music fans download an entire station of music and record music onto a hard drive as individual files.

    Regardless of Radio Free Virgin's efforts to cater to rights holders, allowing consumers to record songs streamed online and play them back at will may test the bounds of U.S. copyright law, legal experts said. Under those rules, Webcasters are barred from allowing their subscribers to pick songs to be played on demand, jukebox-style. Storing songs on the hard drive to be played back later may even draw dangerously near Napster territory.

    In addition, analysts and legal experts said, Internet radio stations that enable people to record music may potentially run into the same legal problems that forced Napster to overhaul its service earlier this year.

    "If they are radio stations, they may be in the position to gain some limited permissions and licenses," said Neil Smith, an intellectual property lawyer at Howard Rice Nemorovski Canady Falk & Rabkin. "But they should be aware of the potential for copyright infringement."

    Zalon said Radio Free Virgin is licensed by SESAC, Broadcast Music (BMI) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which collects and distributes royalties for songwriters and music publishers. He added that the company is actively seeking a license with the Recording Industry Association of America.

    Others said the service could face adoption problems.

    Radio Free Virgin "is really hitting a demographic of real early adopters," said Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy. "I think (Internet radio) already has a good niche with people and that will continue to grow, but it's not necessarily going to replace downloads because downloads give you more portability."

    In a separate announcement, Radio Free Virgin said Monday it has partnered with Digital eStation to offer its player through a digital entertainment system delivered via a set-top box. Subscribers will have access to Radio Free Virgins' radio streaming channels through buttons on the Digital eBox, which is displayed on a television and accessed through a remote tuner. Radio Free Virgin also launched a pop-up window dubbed Radio Free Virgin Lite, which lets people sample 20 channels before downloading the player.

    News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.