LOS ANGELES - Download music from file-swapping networks these days and you risk getting slapped with a copyright lawsuit.
But what if you could simply listen to the songs stored on other music lovers' computers without actually downloading them?
That's exactly what a service called Mercora IMRadio lets you do - and for free. It comes close to recreating the experience of the original Napster and similar file-swapping programs, all the while keeping you out of the music industry's doghouse.
Part Web radio, part online community, Mercora lets participants be DJs, queuing up playlists of their own crafting. Listeners can tap into a single DJ's mix or jump around.
A single stream can be enjoyed by multiple listeners, just like an Internet radio broadcast. Mercora's offerings are thus limited only by the number of users on its network and the extent of their music collections.
Mercora executives say 10,000 to 12,000 Mercora users "stream" music at any given time on roughly 60,000 channels or virtual stations.
The company estimates its users have more than 3 million unique tracks, though it's unlikely all those offerings are available at any one time.
Still, that's better than the roughly 1.5 million to 2 million tracks available from most commercial outfits like Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes or Napster Inc.'s own offering, among others. Satellite radio Web sites might offer a wider selection - but for a fee.
Mercora does have its drawbacks.
For one, it is incompatible with Macintosh computers.
And while it does in some cases let you download songs to your computer for a limited time, you can't move them to a portable digital player or burn them onto a CD.
In addition, you can't search for a specific track. So music fans who want an easy way to dial up a specific song or take music with them should stick to iTunes, Napster and similar services.
But as I spent more time with Mercora, I found that any frustration over not being able to find a specific track was tempered by what I could find. For example, I heard songs by The Beatles that still haven't been cleared for sale on commercial services.
A high-speed Internet connection is a must because the music is streamed from other users then relayed through Mercora's own Web servers.
The interface includes contextual ads - so Mercora can pay its bills - and navigation menus to access features including playlists, saved recordings and settings for playback. Instant-messaging, chat and image-sharing applications encourage community-building.
Because of U.S. copyright laws, only songs webcast by Mercora users outside the United States can be recorded. And even if you do record such music, there is a one-year limit on how long a song can stay recorded.
The program also limits how much you can have recorded at any given time to 20 hours, and Mercora automatically deletes the oldest recording to make space for newer material.
Mercora users have several ways to search for music, including by artist and musical genre. The software continually combs the network to find what tracks are being webcast by other users. It helps if the band is well known.
Mercora allows users to webcast several channels at once and many self-styled DJs continually promote their virtual stations on the network.
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