Free music site attracts wrath of industry

The cofounder of a Web site that offers free streamed music from top artists said he’s determined to operate his service legally despite menacing overtures from Universal Music Group.

The Web site, Deezer.com, based in France, has been signing up users at a fast pace thanks to its user-friendly interface and streamed music from thousands of artists including Maroon 5, Rihanna, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The site offers about 200,000 songs and has signed up 300,000 registered users in the past few months, cofounder Jonathan Benassaya said on Monday. Most of the users are in France, he said, although the site is available in 16 languages.

The record labels have been less enthusiastic. Universal Music, a division of Vivendi Universal SA, said on Friday that Deezer.com’s use of its music was illegal and that it would take “all measures necessary” to get its music removed from the Web site, according to press reports.

Benassaya insisted on Monday the service is legal, however — or at least, that it will be soon.

“We are not robbers,” he said. “We want to pay for the rights to our music but it takes time to put all the agreements in place.”

Deezer.com originally operated as Blogmusik.net but shut down in February under pressure from the music industry. It relaunched with its new name last week after it signed a deal with SACEM, a group that collects royalties for authors and songwriters in France.

The recording industry told Deezer.com that the deal with SACEM was a necessary first step before it could sign deals with the major labels, according to Benassaya. His company is now in talks with the labels and is confident that it will sign deals with them soon to begin paying royalties, he said.

Universal Music, EMI Group Ltd. and Warner Music did not return calls seeking comment on Monday, and Sony BMG could not immediately be reached.

Asked if Deezer.com should have waited until the agreements were in place to launch the service, Benassaya countered that YouTube launched its service before it signed deals with content owners to distribute their video. He also said that Deezer.com has been operating since April and that only now has Universal raised its objection.

While Deezer.com is supposed to let people stream music only, some users have figured out a way to download songs to their computers, something that’s only likely to further irritate the music labels.

“It appears there are some leaks in the Web site security and we have been working on that since Friday,” Benassaya said. “This week by Tuesday or Wednesday we will put in place new security so you cannot download music.”

Deezer’s problems arose when it got caught in the crossfire of competition between two French ISPs, Free and Neuf Cegetel, according to Benassaya.

Neuf announced a deal with Universal Music last Monday to launch a music download service for its customers. Deezer.com was launched two days later, and Free has been promoting Deezer.com as an alternative to its own customers.

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