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Database "upgrades" keep Napster down

The file-swapping service nears the weeklong mark, as the company continued to cite database "upgrades" as the source of its blackout.

Napster's file-swapping service neared the weeklong mark Friday, as the company continued to cite database "upgrades" as the source of its blackout.

see related story: After Napster: Which services will play on? The hiatus comes shortly after Napster disabled old versions of its software. It pushed its members to a new version that rendered the service unusable, blocking even the most obscure, uncopyrighted works from being traded.

But people logging on this week were unable to trade even the few songs left. The company posted a message on its Web page saying that "file transfers have been temporarily suspended while Napster upgrades its databases."

The company did not give a timetable for when trading would resume, however. As of Friday morning, the system was still down.

The closed doors represent the latest setback for a service that has been rendered almost irrelevant in the day-to-day world of online consumer music. Most of the millions of people that once flocked to Napster daily have fled for alternative services. Like Napster, many of these rivals are operating on legally tenuous ground, but they increasingly offer the breadth of music that has vanished from the former leader's service.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ongoing outage is the number of people that remained on the service without the ability to swap files. Several of the company's chat rooms remain active, and the service has kept between 100,000 and 150,000 members a day online--possibly people who have kept their computer on or who have Napster set to start automatically.

A representative said that database glitches in conjunction with the new software for blocking songs prompted the temporary shutdown. Napster is aiming to comply with a court order banning the trade of most copyrighted works over its service. Leery of further court action, the company is acting conservatively to ensure that none of the music identified by the record industry is getting though its services.

"There was music that should have been filtered out that was getting through," the Napster representative said, adding that the service would be restored "as soon as possible" after the database problems are fixed.

The last month has seen an exodus of music lovers from Napster, as efforts to filter out songs identified by the record industry as copyrighted have dried up the once-free flow of music. At the beginning of May, Napster said that more than 1.3 million people a day were visiting its file-swapping service--even though filters were eating into the number of files available.

By late last week and early Monday morning, the company said the number of members online was fluctuating in the 130,000 to 150,000 range--lower than competing services such as MusicCity and iMesh. Nevertheless, Napster's actions remain closely watched, both from a legal and a market perspective.

"Napster still matters to consumers," said Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy. "The Napster name still has some resonance."

From a legal viewpoint, the record industry's ongoing lawsuit against the company still appears to be the best bet for determining consumers' rights to swap music and other copyrighted digital files, a question to which the courts have not yet given a final verdict.

The company's effort to make its file-swapping service squeaky clean from a legal standpoint largely has been a desperate attempt to win its way into the good graces of the major record labels. Napster still plans to launch a paid subscription service this summer and hopes to offer subscribers works from the same labels that have spent the last year and a half suing the company.

It has won a tentative thumbs-up from EMI Recorded Music, Warner Music Group and BMG Entertainment, all of which are part of the MusicNet subscription plan. But Napster will only win rights to the MusicNet catalog if it can prove that its days of unauthorized file swapping are behind it, a condition that prompted its recent actions.

This week's shutdown was not related to the paid service, which Napster partner Bertelsmann originally said would launch at the beginning of July, a Napster representative said. Napster executives have been more cautious with their promises, saying only that the subscription service will launch sometime this summer.

The temporary shutdown isn't drawing much of a reaction from file traders, who have already seen the service dwindle into a shadow of its former self.

"To get actual, real use out of Napster now is more trouble than it's worth," said Wayne Chang, a one-time heavy Napster user. "It is just like pre-Napster days now, except I know what the (Recording Industry Association of America) is and why I hate them."