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Virgin Media and Universal to offer unlimited DRM-free music

Virgin will launch unlimited access to MP3 downloads from Universal's entire back catalogue, for a fixed-price subscription. But if you're caught sharing it, you could face connection problems

3 min read

Virgin Media and Universal Music are to launch a new UK music download service, offering unlimited access to MP3 downloads from Universal's entire back catalogue -- from the likes of U2, Kanye West, Johnny Cash, Eminem and, er, Lady GaGa -- for a fixed-price subscription.

They have also announced, however, that users caught sharing unlicensed copies of Universal's tunes over Virgin's network could face temporary termination of their Internet connection.

So what will you get for your money?

DRM-free MP3s, meaning once downloaded, the music is yours to keep forever. And you can download as much as you want, as well as enjoy unlimited online streaming. Downloaded music will play on almost any music device on the planet, spanning iPods, mobile phones, set-top boxes, games consoles and of course PCs and Macs.

You'll download songs from a Web-based service, a Virgin Media spokesperson told us this afternoon. We were also told that downloads would count towards a user's data-transfer limit, so anyone on Virgin Media's lowest-priced broadband plans may have their connections throttled for downloading large quantities of songs in one session (details on Virgin's throttling can be found here).

In a press release, the service is described as a "world-first", but it's really only a world-first for Universal -- EMI and Warner Music have both been offering unlimited MP3 downloads via the Datz Music Lounge for many months. But we see a much larger issue.

One label to rule them all

Download stores have needed to offer unrestricted, DRM-free MP3s in order to stand a chance of competing with P2P (why pay for a restricted service when you can get unrestricted for free?). But Virgin Media's offering could, at launch, only offer a restricted service, in that it's only offering Universal's catalogue. Why would you pay for a service that only offers one of four record labels' music?

The answer is, of course, you wouldn't. Virgin Media says it's in negotiations "with other UK major and independent music labels and publishers", but it'll need to secure identical deals with those guys in order for this to stand even the remotest chance of success.

If Virgin snags the other three majors at least, and the prices are equal to or lower than DRM-laden unlimited services such as Napster Unlimited (around a tenner a month), it could conceivably attract some attention when it launches later this year. We were told, quite promisingly, the service will be competitively priced, and "better value than anything available online today."

Arr, I'm a pirate. What happens if I'm caught plunderin' Universal's booty?

You'll be hunted down and stabbed in the head. Wait, no, sorry, the other thing: get a letter through your door. You may also have your Internet connection temporarily suspended. Though for some that's as bad as being stabbed.

Virgin Media states that discovering any Universal music being shared by its users will not involve "network monitoring or interception of customer traffic by Virgin Media", and in fact we're told it will be handled by DtecNet -- a company contracted by Universal to monitor file-sharing networks for unauthorised file distribution.

Users caught sharing files will have their IP addresses logged and traced back to Virgin Media, which can then pursue that user in the form of 'educational' letters, and ultimately service restrictions for repeat offenders.

A Virgin Media spokeseperson did not rule out legal action in the most severe of cases, and commented that the agreement between Virgin Media and Universal "doesn't affect the law of the land, and ultimately if the rights-holder wanted to use a court order, then they certainly could do."

The service will launch later this year. Keep your eyes on CNET UK for further details.