A new online file-sharing service that promises to offer free, unlimited music downloads could help solve the problem of copyright violations that occur over campus computer networks
–provided it can successfully conclude music licensing deals with the major record labels.

Qtrax’s ambitious, ad-supported service had pledged unlimited music downloads with the blessing of the major recording companies. That claim began to unravel just hours before Qtrax’s scheduled debut on Jan. 28, when Warner Music Group Corp. issued a statement that it had not authorized the firm to distribute its artists’ music. Other major record labels soon followed.

In a statement, Qtrax President and Chief Executive Allan Klepfisz said the launch of the service would be put off “for a short time.” He also maintained that the service had the support of music “rights holders.”

“We believe the exact nature of that support will be publicly clarified within a very short time,” Klepfisz added.

Qtrax set out to legitimize the experience of downloading music free of charge from other music fans’ computers via online file-swapping networks like Gnutella, by using advertising revenue to compensate record companies.

Users are required to download software from the Qtrax site to search for and download music.

The announcement of the free service comes as colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to curtail the illegal use of campus networks to download and share copyright-protected music and movie files online. Congress is considering legislation that would force higher-education institutions to adopt technological means to rein in such activity.

Qtrax staged its splashy debut at the annual MIDEM music business conference at the seaside resort of Cannes, France, on Jan. 27. Within hours, however, the company found itself in damage-control mode.

The Qtrax web site had not even gone live when Warner Music issued its statement.

Two other major recording companies, Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group and Britain’s EMI Group PLC, later confirmed they did not have licensing deals in place with Qtrax, noting discussions were still ongoing.

On Jan. 28, Sony BMG Music Entertainment noted that it, too, had not entered into a licensing agreement granting Qtrax the rights to launch the latest version of the service.

Music services such as Qtrax must secure licensing agreements from the record companies, which own the rights to master recordings, and music publishers, which control the rights to song compositions. Each of the major recording companies also operates music-publishing units.

At MIDEM, Klepfisz acknowledged that discussions with the record labels were not easy. “A colonoscopy is relatively painless in comparison,” he told participants.

Later, Klepfisz told the Associated Press that he had reached agreements on the terms of the deals, though some deals had yet to be formally signed.

Privately, some recording industry executives said Qtrax’s botched launch likely wouldn’t factor into their final decisions on whether to sign off on the service.

New York-based Qtrax, a subsidiary of Brilliant Technologies Corp., was among several peer-to-peer file-sharing applications that emerged following the shutdown of Napster, the pioneer service that enabled millions to illegally copy songs stored in other music fans’ computers.

Its new software is designed to let users tap into file-sharing networks to search for music, but downloads are scanned for viruses by Qtrax and embedded with copy-protection technology known as digital-rights management, or DRM, to prevent users from burning copies to a CD and to calculate how to divvy up advertising sales with labels.

Downloads can be stored indefinitely on a computer and—unlike several competing services—can be transferred onto portable music players, but they won’t work with iPods for now.

An “iPod solution” won’t be available until April 15, Qtrax said.

Assuming Qtrax is able to reach final licensing agreements with the major recording firms, it’s not clear whether the free service will help curb illegal file sharing on campus.

Still, the ability to transfer files onto portable music players could mark an improvement over many fee-based services such as Ruckus and the new Napster, which have inked deals with universities looking to give their students legal downloading options.

Limitations on the use of music obtained through Ruckus and Napster have dampened students’ use of these services at many universities.

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Qtrax