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AOL blocks music-copying feature

Internet giant says its Winamp software shouldn't be used to swipe free songs from Napster and other digital music services.

America Online is disabling a feature of its popular music software that had been used to evade copy-prevention features of digital music services, the company said Friday.

The company's Winamp software was identified by bloggers this week as part of a process that transformed copy-protected music downloads into songs that could be burned by the thousand to CD. The tool had potentially affected any subscription service that used Microsoft's media format, including Napster, Virgin Music and even America Online's own music subscription plan.

AOL programmers are taking a series of steps to prevent its software from being used in this way, a representative said.

"Immediately upon discovering this flaw, we worked quickly to address it and to ensure that Winamp can continue to provide secure playback of Windows Media content," spokeswoman Ann Burkart said. "A fix is being implemented today in existing players, and a new player will be posted for users to download."

The technique used in the Winamp process is not a new one and is a part of many other pieces of software available online. Nevertheless, the news rippled though the record industry and online music services this week, causing renewed scrutiny of the subscription music business model by top industry executives.

The process was essentially a high-tech version of recording a song off the radio. Antipiracy software, including Microsoft's, typically prevents a direct digital copy from being made. But some software packages, dubbed "stream rippers," allow a computer to rerecord audio as it is being played.

The resulting files are typically lower quality than the originals, and the artist, album and file information are lost.

AOL has already removed the Winamp plug-in that made this process fairly simple. Programmers are developing a patch that will be automatically pushed to the software's users. The patch will probably disable altogether the ability to play copy-protected songs in Microsoft's format.

A new version of Winamp software will then be released that can once again play the Microsoft-formatted songs, but will block the stream-ripping capability, Burkart said.