A revamped online file-sharing service aims to woo legions of music fans by offering unlimited, free song downloads that are compatible with iPods, and all with the blessing of major recording companies.
Qtrax, which makes its debut Sunday, is the latest online music venture counting on the lure of free music to draw in music fans and on advertising to pay the bills, namely record company licensing fees.
The New York-based service was among several peer-to-peer file-sharing applications that emerged following the shutdown of Napster, the pioneer service that enabled millions to illegally copy songs stored in other music fans' computers.
Qtrax shut down after a few months following its 2002 launch to avoid potential legal trouble.
The latest version of Qtrax still lets users tap into file-sharing networks to search for music, but downloads come with copy-protection technology known as digital-rights management, or DRM, to prevent users from burning copies to a CD and calculate how to divvy up advertising sales with labels.
Qtrax downloads can be stored indefinitely on PCs and transferred onto portable music players, however.
The service, which boasts a selection of up to 30 million tracks, also promises that its music downloads will be playable on Apple Inc.'s iPods and Macintosh computers as early as March.
That's unusual, as iPods only playback unrestricted MP3s files or tracks with Apple's proprietary version of DRM, dubbed FairPlay.
"We've had a technical breakthrough which enables us to put songs on an iPod without any interference from FairPlay," said Allan Klepfisz, Qtrax's president and chief executive.
Klepfisz declined to give specifics on how Qtrax will make its audio files compatible with Apple devices, but noted that "Apple has nothing to do with it."
Apple has been resistant in the past to license FairPlay to other online music retailers. That stance has effectively limited iPod users to loading up their players with tracks purchased from Apple's iTunes Music Store, or MP3s ripped from CDs or bought from vendors such as eMusic or Amazon.com.
A call to Apple was not immediately returned Saturday.
Rob Enderle, technology analyst at the San Jose-based Enderle Group, said he expects Apple would take steps to block Qtrax files from working on iPods.
Last fall, the company issued a software update for its iPhones that created problems for units modified by owners so they would work with a cellular carrier other than AT&T Inc. As a result, some modified phones ceased to work after the software update.
The move prompted antitrust lawsuits on behalf of some consumers.
Qtrax users can also download music videos and comb through album reviews, lyrics and other features. The service guarantees that users will never download spyware, adware or bogus audio files often found on file-sharing networks.
As long as the DRM on downloads and advertising in the Qtrax application aren't too obtrusive, the music service may appeal to computer users now trolling for tracks via LimeWire and other unlicensed services, Enderle said.
"This is a way to get the stuff for free and not take the risk of having the (recording industry) show up at your doorstep with a six-figure lawsuit," he said.