NEW YORK Napster Inc, one of the largest digital music retailers, said on Monday it would start selling downloads in the MP3 format from the second quarter of this year in the latest blow to copy protection for songs bought online.
Napster had sold songs protected with Microsoft Corp's Windows-based digital rights management (DRM) to prevent buyers from illegally making multiple copies or distributing songs to other users.
But the use of DRM, originally mandated by the world's largest music companies, has proved unpopular with consumers. Many have been frustrated to find that songs they buy can only be played on certain compatible digital players or could not be moved from one computer to another.
Napster made its name in the 1990s as the first major free marketplace for DRM-free songs in the MP3 format. But it did so as an illegal service for users to share their music files, eventually being sued and closed by the music industry in 2001.
Today's incarnation of Napster operates legally after buying rights to the name in 2003. It has 750,000 subscribers who use both its music subscription and download services.
"We projected a year ago that there would be a critical mass of support for MP3, and we're pleased to see the music industry is beginning to support it," said Chief Executive Chris Gorog. "There's now enough top-tier content out there."
Major music companies including EMI Group, Vivendi's Universal Music Group and, more recently, Warner Music Group, have begun selling songs in the MP3 format.
MP3 is the most widely available digital audio format and plays on the widest range of devices, including the dominant digital music player, Apple Inc's iPod.
"There's little question that the broad adoption of MP3s will provide an uplift for the industry," said Gorog.
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)