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Virgin to launch Music Unlimited 'without unlimited music'

Big label paranoia strikes again

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Exclusive For the second time in a year, UK punters look like losing out on a ground-breaking music service, thanks to big label paranoia. The Register understands that Virgin Media's "unlimited" downloads service will launch without the unlimited, untethered top-tier offering - the first in the world of its kind. Virgin told us that it's still working towards that goal. Sources acknowledged resistance to "go unlimited" from the music business, with fingers pointed at Sony Music.

The service will be tiered, as expected, but instead of unlimited downloads, a top-tier will entitle a subscriber to 40 MP3 downloads for £15 a month - although this may change before launch. That brings it in line with Sky's bundle. Sky told told suppliers the prices for its own ISP music bundle, Sky Songs, back in May, but it has yet to launch. Subscribers to Virgin's music service will include unlimited streaming, what about unlimited downloads?

"We're still working towards that goal", a Virgin spokesman told us.

Universal Music - the biggest label and the prime mover - sounded like it wanted to put unlimited back on the rails:

"We believe music fans are crying out for a service like this, and we want to see it launched as soon as possible. We and our artists are doing everything we can to support Virgin Media and to get the new service off the ground," said a spokesman.

Virgin and UMG announced the service in July, the day before Lord Carter's Digital Britain report.

In January, Virgin suspended plans to launch the world's first licensed P2P file sharing service through an ISP - after spending millions. As now, it was last minute major label reluctance that prompted the stand down.

From Unlimited to Unlimited

The move will dismay politicians, ISPs and many in the music business who have called for a radical "game changing" new services to lure the public away from unlicensed music file sharing.

"Ultimately the answer to combating digital piracy lies in the hands of those who own content and those who control access to the internet," wrote secretary of state Peter Mandelson in August. "Rights holders already have to take risks, and will have to take more."

That wish isn't being fulfilled, however.

"They're still keen to get it moving, but generally from the music industry side it's a case of stepping into the breach. What seems to be a challenge for music companies is losing revenue," said an ISP source familiar with negotiations.

Others pinpoint Sony's reluctance to "lose" a household that grosses the music business £400 annual revenue for one that gains them around £120. Sources say Virgin still hopes to launch the service by Christmas.

Enforcement measures against P2P file sharers are expected to be outlined in the Queen's Speech next month. ®

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