Record Giant Universal Faces the Internet Music

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LOS ANGELES: Ask any record company executive: MP3 is evil. The most widespread format for downloading music off the Internet is given away free and has no copyright protection. But like it or not, the Net looks like the record store of the future, and giant label Universal Music figures it's time to quit whining and start competing -- with a standard that allows labels and artists to get their rightful slice of the pie.

Universal's announcement Wednesday that it would try to have a new pay-for-play standard in place by Christmas (with the technical assistance of Intertrust Technologies) was something of a cry for help. The Recording Industry Association of America, a gaggle of mutually interested big labels, is hard at work on the problem already. But so far it's been all talk and no standard, so Universal aims to break out of the pack and set a somewhat brisker pace. Whether they'll make it by Christmas -- and whether anyone will want to buy Universal's or the RIAA's cows when they can get MP3 milk for free -- remains to be seen. But for labels, hand-wringing just isn't an acceptable business plan anymore.