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Spotify is throttling the amount of free listening available to users of the service in a set of small but complex changes.

The main change is that users who sign up to the free ad-supported Spotify will be restricted to 10 hours of listening a month, with a maximum of five plays for an individual song. There's a six month grace period for users who have already signed up, since 1 November 2010.

Co-founder Daniel Ek announced the details on the Spotify blog today. Spotify will continue to offer a free day trial of the ad-free service, which costs either £5 a month for unlimited streaming or £10 a month for offline and mobile playback on top of that.

Spotify's chief content officer Ken Parks hints that the changes were forced on the company.

He said: "We've shown that the model is doing extremely well, but as things stand we need to tweak the service to ensure everyone has access to legal music in the long term."

When Spotify launched the free, ad-supported access to millions of songs, it was touted as the cure for piracy. Since then streaming services have flourished, but possibly at the expense of licensed, paid-for song downloads as much as pirate sites.

Yet unlike anything coming out of Shoreditch, the company brings in real money. Indie music empire Beggars says Spotify is already the third-largest digital account in territories in which it operates.

A bigger problem for Spotify is that in the long term, paying for art by flat-fee subscription tends to leave everyone in an unhappy compromise: just look at Premier League football, which moved from a pay-as-you-go to a prepay model a decade ago. The artist who has written and/or performed the hit of the day (which might be a once-in-a-lifetime moment) can't capture the value of their popularity, so will keep their latest music away from Spotify, distributing it through more lucrative channels, while it's hot.

The punter who signed up expecting the promised "universal jukebox", then discovers it isn't, and goes off to Amazon or iTunes to buy it legally, or acquires an unlicensed copy. Spotify lags about six weeks behind the charts, but if a record is popular, that lacuna can stretch into months.

It isn't hard to imagine a "Spotify Select" premium offering on top of the existing top tier giving access to this. It's equally easy to see why this would never happen. But I've never heard of a copyright "problem" that can't solved by the voluntary and willing exchange of money. ®

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