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Napster has almost reached agreement over a licensing deal with three of the big five record companies.

AOL Time Warner, BMG Entertainment and EMI are hoping to turn the infamous song-swapping service - which was all but shut down by a blizzard of lawsuits - into something that, surprise, surprise, they can make a huge amount of money from.

The basic structure of the new Napster is fairly simple and bears no relation to its original form. People will download files over a secure connection and pay for each one they download. The companies may just come up with a more imaginative approach but we're not holding our breath.

Napster is essentially little more than a brand name at the moment, but how strong a brand name? Say Napster to someone and the first reaction will most likely be "failure" - because Napster failed in its attempt to revolutionise the way music is distributed and has been overrun by the status quo.

Also, have you actually been on Napster recently? There's nothing there. And every week that it's pointless visiting Napster, the "brand name" is damaged still further.

Not that any of this bothers the record companies. Like victors stepping over the maimed body of a once feared enemy, they have no real interest in keeping Napster alive and putting it in charge of a new army. Instead, the new general MusicNet will take over.

MusicNet is backed by the three big companies mentioned above and has an ally in RealNetworks. MusicNet will have an uneasy ceasefire agreement with Duet - the company set up by the other two main record companies - Sony and Vivendi - for online music sales.

Whether the five companies that effectively control music in the modern world will make good use of Internet technology is yet to be seen. ®

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