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Napster sets music 'free' with five-song barrier

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Unable to make even the smallest dent in Apple's iTunes music store, Napster has turned to drastic tactics. Napster CEO Chris Gorog this week stunned the online music world by acquiring the Steve Jobs reality distortion field.

How else can you explain this statement from a Napster press release?

"Napster was born of the idea of eliminating all barriers to discovering, enjoying and sharing music, and of putting the power in the hands of fans," Gorog said. "With a vision to empower music fans in a legal environment, with an open, all-inclusive platform, we are very excited to share our new free music experience at Napster.com."

Yes, that's how he chose to describe Napster's new "free" music service where anyone can sign up for an account and access the company's entire catalog of digital tunes without signing up for a subscription.

But is the deal as good as it sounds? Does it "eliminate all barriers" to enjoying music or "empower" music fans?

Erm, not exactly.

By "eliminating all barriers," Napster actually means that you can listen to a song five times for free before being cut off from the service. And while Napster claims that Mac and Linux users can now partake in this openness adventure, that's only a half-truth. Mac and Linux customers can do the five-download thing, but if they want to listen to songs more via Napster's subscription service, they'll have to shell out for a Windows box.

Oh, you have to fill out a Napster form to eliminate the barriers too.

In Napster, we find a well-trained poodle. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has taught this pup to jump through some amazing hoops. We can't wait for the play six songs on Monday, twelve on Tuesday and 3.5 on Thursday empowerment program. As liberating as listening to a song five times might seem to Gorog, you have to believe that most consumers expect more.

If nothing else, Napster should back off trying to capitalize on its free-wheeling brand name by portraying its service as an open paradise. Treating potential customers like gullible buffoons tends to be a bad long-term business strategy.

You can see what an unfettered, empowering music rental service looks like here or you can buy a CD and dump it into iTunes. ®

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