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BEIJING -- Chinese netizens have long been fond of downloading the latest chart-topping songs from music websites and Internet portals, as most sites offer the tunes for free.
However, a deal between Chinese music sites and three of the world's biggest record labels could signal the end of the trend.
The Warner Music Group, Universal Music and Sony Music Entertainment are reportedly talking with major online music providers in China to set up a scheme that will charge individual users for music downloads.
Although unconfirmed by the record labels, netizens have been rabidly discussing the rumors on Sina Weibo and other popular microblogging sites.
Related reading: Music websites plan for paid downloads
Ran Jing, a 22-year-old hairdresser from Central China's Hubei province, described listening to free music on inexpensive mobile phones as a "cherished pastime" for many young people who struggle just to pay for their basic necessities.
"Of course I don't like to pay for music downloads, given the little money I have," he said.
Some netizens believe the fee system is reasonable, as album sales have shrunk drastically in the Internet era and resulted in hard times for record labels.
Balancing interests among websites, the owners of intellectual property rights and the public has become a critical issue in China, with relevant parties struggling to find a realistic and sustainable profit model.
A free music platform launched by Google in 2009 was shut down last month, reportedly due to low traffic and less-than-expected income from ads.
Baidu, a Chinese search engine that has been accused of infringing on IPR multiple times, is maintaining a patented music service by paying record companies.
A spokeswoman for the Beijing office of Universal Music said her company has noticed the reports, but had no information to offer. Representatives for the Chinese branches of Warner and Sony could not be reached for comment.
IT industry analyst Xie Wen said the fee proposal is being raised as part of the country's efforts to reorganize its Internet and music industries, as the possibility of charging users for music downloads, a practice that has proven successful overseas, also seems to be feasible in China.
Xie described the move as "legal and logical", although labels and Internet companies will need to weigh consumers' responses, as well as the plan's business prospects.
"If the fees result in low profits or are only carried out by several major companies, they are not likely to survive," he said.
Systematic efforts made by law enforcement agencies, Internet companies and record labels will be needed to prevent music from being pirated, Xie said.
Liu Deliang, director of the Beijing-based Asia-Pacific Institute for Cyber-Law Studies, said the plan is "neither realistic nor represents the future of Internet music" because it lacks profitability.
The government has made more efforts to protect IPR in recent years. However, China still lags behind Western nations in terms of stamping out piracy, Liu said, which will make the fee proposal difficult to carry out.
"Internet music should continue to be free. Music and Internet firms' profits should come from other channels, like online advertising and value-added services," he said.
Rather than charging individual Internet users, online music providers should focus on changing their profit models and ensuring that profits are distributed between websites and record labels fairly, Liu said.