Napster inks deal with Relatable

Napster announced Friday that it has signed a licensing agreement with Relatable to use the company's fingerprinting technology, called TRM, which stands for "this recognises music." Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

Relatable joins a growing list of companies that Napster has hired -- and even bought -- to help block copyrighted music from its popular song-swapping system. Napster has hired Gracenote.com to help it filter recordings and recently purchased Gigabeat for an undisclosed sum.

The Big Five record labels sued Napster in December 1999 and successfully won a court injunction last month that requires Napster to filter copyrighted music.

"We are now working closely with Relatable's engineers to coordinate their technology with our file-filtering systems," Napster interim CEO Hank Barry said in a statement.

The recording industry has been critical of Napster's filtering efforts to date and suggested in recent court documents that it use digital fingerprinting technology to step up those efforts. "Napster's apparent interest in complying with the court's order is good news for creators and seems to be a step in the right direction," Cary Sherman, the Recording Industry Association of America's senior executive VP and general counsel, said in a statement.

Relatable's technology decompresses a music file of any format, analyses its properties, creates a unique fingerprint and then identifies the recording by comparing it to a database. If there's no match, it adds the recording to the database.

Relatable's TRM technology could play a major role in Napster's launch of a subscription-based version of its music downloading service, scheduled to debut in July. The technology would enable Napster to identify music more accurately and, consequently, calculate royalties due to copyright holders. But two obstacles stand in the way: the enormous size of Napster's system, and the recording industry.

"For any fingerprinting technology, this is the biggest customer that's ever tried to use such technology," said Relatable CEO Patrick Breslin, whose past customers include EMusic.com and FreeAmp, an open-source audio player and jukebox. Relatable's technology takes 1.4 seconds to generate a fingerprint on a recording and can conduct 5,000 database queries per second to match that fingerprint. But Friday, Napster's system offered more than 100 times more recordings than that -- 607,000 -- for downloading. Adapting fingerprinting technology to such a huge database will be a "major technical challenge," Breslin said.

And then there's the database itself. Relatable has a database of 600,000 unique recordings, but whether Napster will use it remains uncertain. Ultimately, a subscription service -- in which users pay per download or per month of downloading -- will require a master database from the recording industry, said Greg Rohda, an analyst with digital-music research firm Webnoize. Getting that master catalogue might require pressure from the court and even Congress because, according to Rohda, the recording industry is "famously behind the tech curve."

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Ronna Abramson

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