More than a year ago, the powers that be in the music recording industry decided to stamp out online music trading by targeting what was then the most popular file-swapping site, Napster. The Recording Industry Association of America and several of the largest record labels took Napster to court, winning both the closure of the Napster site and a promise from the company not to open again until it had created a music service that paid the industry licensing fees. Yet the Internet music saga seems far from over, not least for the music recording industry. Though Napster has been cowed, several other popular services have emerged to take its place - among them KaZaA, Morpheus and Gnutella. The media giants still face the challenge of mastering the Internet and making payment for online music attractive to consumers. Reluctance to cannibalise traditional store sales and complications over royalty schemes contributed to record companies' delayed online debut - though the consensus is that the popularity of the file-sharing sites forced the industry's hand. Last month saw several industry-sanctioned subscription services launched in the United States to lure people away from sites trading unlicensed music files. It was the first time the industry offered legitimate music downloads over the Internet on a large scale. For a fee, the new services, such as Listen.com, MusicNet, RioPort, Emusic and Pressplay, let users download a number of songs each month. Most of the sites are about half a year behind schedule, with much of the blame being heaped on the music industry for foot-dragging on opening up its music libraries. For the most part, Asian music lovers who want to try out the new subscription services will have to wait. Only Emusic is available. In certain markets, they should have more choice by the middle of this year, as three Asian companies - SoundBuzz, PlanetMG and GigaMedia - are watching carefully to see how their US counterparts work out while readying launches. PlanetMG and GigaMedia plan to introduce a subscription service by April and SoundBuzz is aiming for the middle of the year. Pricing and song catalogues have not been finalised, though executives at the companies indicate they will be looking at the US services as models. 'They charge an average US$10 a month. I would guess our price would be close to that,' said Stephen Liao, production manager for business development at GigaMedia, which is Taiwan's largest cable provider. GigaMedia will change its popular juice.com.tw music site to www.gigamusic.com and plans to sell compact discs, but its initial focus is on Taiwan. SoundBuzz will launch its service in Australia and India. PlanetMG will be available across the Asia-Pacific region. Emergence of such services is a sign that one of the big hurdles - access to labels' music catalogues - is being overcome. PlanetMG is backed by Sony but has licensing deals with Womad, Acid Jazz and Bignote, in addition to working with Samba, Vivendi Universal and BMG on promotional downloads. PlanetMG chief executive Paul Tan said it was in talks on further licensing deals. They would help the site move beyond the 500 or so artists it now carries. Despite recent progress, not all legal and commercial issues had been resolved, Mr Tan said. 'Miles Davis, the man is dead - how are you going to get the Miles Davis catalogue? You have to talk to his legal people. 'In fact, a lot of the artists from 1997 backwards did not have digital rights in their contracts, so you have to go back and sort all this out.' SoundBuzz will license songs from EMI, BMG and Warner, while GigaMedia has agreements with EMI and Rock Records. All three Asian services expect to close more licensing deals within the next half-year. SoundBuzz chief executive Sudhanshu Sarronwala said: 'Universal and Sony don't have policies in place for Asia. We expect that to happen in the next three to six months.' Although it was the majors that had the international stars and the back catalogues consisting of tens of thousands of songs, smaller labels were often top of the charts in many Asian markets and would also play a role in pushing the region's online music, Mr Sarronwala said. 'India is actually progressing quite quickly in digital distribution. The local record labels are very aggressive,' he said. The number of downloads and streams available on the Asian services are not yet finalised, though Mr Liao said Giga music.com would only allow files to be transferred to PCs and not to portable devices such as MP3 players. Of the three US-focused services launched so far, only Lis ten.com allows music files to be transferred to other devices. Typically, the monthly subscription allows for several hundred on-demand music streams and several dozen downloads to the subscriber's PC. PlanetMG would probably allow file transfers to portable devices, Mr Tan said. 'We presume that the customer would want to own it and would want flexibility in burning it on a customised CD.' The limits on copying abilities have been built into the software used by the sites, largely because of the music industry's concern about piracy. GigaMedia and SoundBuzz will use Microsoft's digital rights management software. PlanetMG is using similar software developed by Sony. The music industry may be treading a fine line between protecting its billions of dollars in annual sales and alienating users with the restrictions. Several other sites are waiting on the sidelines. YesAsia, Gogo .com and Stareastnet, all based in Hong Kong, said they did not have any plans to launch subscription services in the coming year. YesAsia chief executive Joshua Lau said: 'In terms of Asian music, I don't think the downloads will happen this year.' The site would continue to focus on selling mail-order CDs until others prove downloaded and streamed music can generate income. 'Twenty per cent of revenues could eventually come from downloads, but anything below that is not meaningful,' he said. While no data is available on the volume of music downloads happening in Asia, most in the industry agree that unlicensed music from Napster-style file-sharing programs accounts for the majority and that actual consumer sales at sites with licensed music are still small. Most online music companies are reluctant to release figures, though SoundBuzz said that, of the 250,000 tracks it sold in the most recent quarter, most were sold wholesale to companies such as Hewlett-Packard, which uses the songs for promotional packages. 'At the retail level, the percentage is very small,' Mr Sarronwala said. Gogo.com, launched with plans to target online music sales and A&R - developing and representing musical acts - is watching how things pan out. Chief executive David Loiterton said: 'We do not have the resources to take a five-year investment view of online music and that is what I think it is now. 'A year ago, I would have said it is 12 to 18 months away, now I think it is three to five years away.' Much of the momentum from Napster had been lost. 'We still think the online music model is valid, it will work. But there are still some significant issues that still haven't been resolved, in licensing, in the model, and in consumer take-up,' Mr Loiterton said. Online downloads and sales at the Gogo site are limited to the handful of artists the company represents. He and Mr Tan agreed one way the Internet had a positive impact on the music business was in providing another way to find and promote unknown acts. Mr Tan said the Web would be a major means of catching the attention of new listeners and big record labels. 'I would say the Internet would be the way people would get exposed. We have a couple of our artists awaiting contracts from major labels.' In conjunction with the launch of subscription services, the music industry is moving to introduce copyright protection software on physical CDs sold in stores. This software places limits on where the CDs can be played and whether they can be copied into computer-friendly and pirate-friendly digital formats such as MP3. All indications are that Vivendi Universal will introduce such software on CDs sold in Asia early this year and that other labels will follow suit. Some copyright-protected CDs have already been introduced in Europe and the US. Mr Loiterton said he saw such moves as inevitable. But Mr Sarronwala said there were still technical issues with such schemes because not all CD players could recognise the copy-protection software. 'It is also a violation of consumer laws in several countries. I don't see it as a done deal.' Indeed, consumer electronics giant Philips Electronics recently said it planned to produce a device to read and copy such discs. When Gogo, SoundBuzz and YesAsia were launched, Napster had yet to become a phenomenon and market researchers were expecting online music sales to soar. Now several are having second thoughts.