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Why does the idea of legal P2P - something music fans have been clamouring for since the original Napster - still cause so much confusion?

Britain is set to be the first country outside Korea where punters will be offered such services (as we revealed back in June), but the idea still seems too incredible for many journalists and bloggers to comprehend.

Yesterday the Washington Post reprinted a garbled story from PaidContent which reports that Virgin is launching an unlimited music service that will "pay record labels for songs illegally downloaded by its customers" - a quite shocking idea! It certainly stunned PaidContent's blogger Robert Andrews, who stuck an "exclusive" tag on the revelation. The service, Andrews writes, will be provided by PlayLouder MSP, and will launch next year.

But this is exactly the idea behind legal P2P - a pool of money that's raised through subscription (or raised through advertising, or donated by a sugar daddy, such as Nokia) is simply divided up according to music exchanges over the network. And this is the idea behind PlayLouder MSP, which we first reported on five years ago. As originally envisaged, PMSP took a "vertical" approach to legal P2P music: It would offer its own-branded ISP service, and deal with billing and promotion itself. But with the UK ISP market rapidly consolidating into a few major players, PlayLouder MSP adopted a "horizontal" or "platform" approach, instead offering a white-label service to other ISPs.

As many as six such services will launch, we gather, with the first to appear before Christmas.

Now obviously in a Legal P2P network, a significant amount of the music that flows over the pipes will be unlicensed songs.

As 7Digital's Ben Drury told us last week:

"There's a lot of content out there that is unlicensable, and it's not just the unlicensed material such as bootlegs. That's the killer thing with P2P - it's not the delivery technology, it's the fact that everything is out there."

(Drury's company is also talking to ISPs to offer subscription services.)

Since subscribers will be exchanging the content of their hard drives, then naturally a fair amount of what is being exchanged will have been originally sourced from unlicensed networks such as Kazaa or Bittorrent trackers. QTrax takes the approach of attempting to filter out songs which aren't in its database of licensed material submitted by the record companies. Others will attempt to pay the rights holders somehow for the material, while others will ignore it completely.

Mystery solved.

Over at Ars Technica, John Timmer rightly finds "a number of reasons to be skeptical of the report", which "may be wrong". But with space needing to be filled, he speculates away anyway. 'May's, 'Could be's, 'Seems likely's, and 'Possibly's then spill out like the contents of an unattended leaky pipe.

But this being Arse, complete ignorance of what's going on is not regarded as an obstacle to the obligatory cynical conclusion. Timmer writes:

"As such, the deal seems similar to the agreement that saw the company mail out warning letters, in that it gives a sufficient appearance of action to keep the media companies happy."

Yeah. That'll do it.

Perhaps people have spent so long in wishful contemplation about the future - fantasizing about how it could look - they can't quite recognize it when it arrives. ®

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