SAN JOSE, Calif. - Copyright music flowed freely on the Napster tune-swapping service yesterday afternoon as users waited to see if the company would fulfill a promise to block pirated songs sometime over the past weekend using a new screening system.
All the top 10 songs listed on the Billboard Hot 100 list were available on the company's servers, including the No. 1 "Stutter" by Joe, featuring Mystikal. Songs by longtime Napster foe Metallica also showed up in searches.
The company will not comment on the screening plan until it begins, spokeswoman Karen DeMarco said yesterday. She would not say when that would be.
With the service facing imminent change, usage was soaring. More than 11,100 people shared a total of 2.2 million files yesterday afternoon on just one of dozens of servers used by Napster.
"I am kind of watching it and trying to get my last efforts in - quickly," said Thor Nelson, a user from St. Paul, Minn.
During a federal court hearing Friday, Napster attorney David Boies said the service would deploy the screening system over the past weekend. He did not provide a specific time.
On its Web site, Napster said the process of screening out file names, song titles and artists won't be easy.
"It has involved a significant investment of time and resources," a statement said. "However, we believe it is superior to shutting the service down and disbanding the community during the transition period to the new, membership-based service."
The software to be installed on Napster's servers will block access to one million music files, Boies said. He and other Napster officials did not say whether that number represented distinct songs or spelling variations on a smaller list.
Napster's plan is a pre-emptive move against an injunction sought by the major record labels, which argue copyright holders and artists are not compensated for music traded on the service. Napster has argued that its computers do not store actual song files but rather direct people to other users' hard drives, where the music can be downloaded.
In July, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel granted the industry's request for a preliminary injunction and ordered Napster shut down for facilitating infringement. But last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order pending its decision in the case.
Napster last week offered to settle the lawsuit brought by the recording industry for $1 billion in exchange for a 40 percent cut of online music sales. The offer was rejected by the recording industry.
Last fall, German media giant Bertelsmann AG, which owns the BMG label, partnered with Napster and said it would fund the development of a subscription-based service.
None of its competitors has joined in, and all the major labels are developing online music distribution businesses of their own, even as other ways of getting free music are sprouting up.
Napster's popularity exploded in 1999, after founder Shawn Fanning released software making it easy for personal computer users to locate and trade songs stored as computer files in the MP3 format, which compresses digital recordings without sacrificing quality.
The five largest record labels - Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI and Universal quickly sued, saying Napster could rob them of billions of dollars in profits.
James Grady, an analyst with Giga Information Group, said the screening technology coming this weekend from Napster is a valiant effort but perhaps comes too late.
"I really think that this is Napster's opportunity to show that they are trustworthy," Grady said. "The question is, do they want to take advantage of that and will they be able to?"
By last Friday, all parties were back in court to discuss the case when Napster changed its tune and announced plans to start blocking songs.
The change is significant, but the policy will work only if the company is diligent in policing its servers and blocking so-called workarounds, such as Madonna songs that are listed with her name spelled with one "n," said Robert Schwartz, an attorney who specializes in copyright law.
Napster said other name variations, such as "Bing's Christmas" for Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," or misspellings such as "Metalica" for "Metallica," would be caught by the software as well.
But some experts wondered how long it would take before users find a workaround.
"What the well-intentioned mind can invent, the not-well-intentioned mind can destroy," Schwartz said.
If the screening system works, however, frustrated Napster users can go elsewhere - to similar servers not under the control of the company or the courts and file-sharing systems that use no central servers.
Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, said the proposal is a promising step.
"We think that the screening technology has the potential to be effective, but we'll see," she said after Friday's hearing.
Yesterday, RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss said the group would have no comment immediately on Napster's implementation of file blocking "or lack thereof."