May 4, 2011 2:25 pm

Baidu to launch free legal music downloads

Baidu plans to launch a service offering free legal music downloads this month, a step set to raise hopes among music labels that China is starting to crack down further on copyright infringements.

China’s largest online search engine has started testing Baidu Ting, the new service, among a limited number of users before opening it to all later this month, the company said.

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The move comes amid a crackdown on intellectual property rights violations which the government started last October and has led to the shutdown of many of the websites offering streaming and downloads of pirated music and films.

The US government, in its annual report on intellectual property rights protection worldwide, kept China on its special watchlist but expressed cautious optimism over the country’s recent measures. Beijing’s special campaign against piracy might lead to “lasting improvements” in IPR protection, the report said. Last month, the US Trade Representative had included Baidu on a list of “notorious markets” for pirated goods.

Many foreign rights holders continue to doubt Beijing’s resolve in the long term. But they see the move by Baidu, which holds a virtual stranglehold over China’s online search market since Google partly retreated last year, as an encouraging sign.

“When Baidu starts to move it means that things might really be changing,” said a foreign entertainment industry executive who declined to be named as he insisted it was too early for an open endorsement.

Baidu continues to operate Baidu MP3, a site which helps internet users find, stream and download unlicensed music for free. The company refused to comment on when Ting will completely replace that service, but executives have said they are planning to gradually change the model.

Legal action by the music labels against the search engine company over Baidu MP3 has failed to result in any change as Baidu does not host the pirated songs on its own website but just helps users find songs uploaded elsewhere.

The new service comes after Baidu reached an agreement with China’s music copyright society under which artists will be compensated directly. So far, the new site has very few foreign songs.

Google started a free legal music service on its China site two years ago because it realised that Baidu MP3 was one major reason why users preferred the domestic search engine over its foreign rival. The music service is one of the few features Google has retained on its mainland China site after it moved its local web search to its Hong Kong site last year following a dispute with the Chinese government over censorship and hacking.

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