Repositioning itself as a community network rather than a digital music piracy tool, the MP3 site Napster has rolled out a Beta upgrade complete with an instant messenging client.

In the midst of a high-profile court battle with the Recording Industry Association of America and heavy-metal band Metallica, the controversial MP3 distribution site is hoping to convince the world that it is not a piracy haven for teenagers with too much time on their hands.

The new messenging client allows users to easily exchange messages with the visitors they’re sharing music files with.

The latest Beta also adds a host of community features and support for copyright-friendly Windows Media Audio files, not just the popular MP3 format.

"The more services that it adds that are not piracy-specific, the more it bolsters Napster's argument that it's acting as an [Internet service provider] and not a music piracy haven," says Malcolm Maclachlan, an analyst with the research firm IDC.

The challengers say Napster is responsible for massive violations of music copyrights. Napster claims it is a "mere conduit" of information, like an ISP or a phone network.

It declines responsibility for copyrighted material it might transmit, as long as the service takes reasonable steps to keep copyrighted material off its network.

Earlier this month a US federal judge ruled Napster couldn't use that defence because it hasn't taken adequate steps to prevent "repeat offenders" from using its site.

Last week, in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Napster blocked 317,000 customers from its network for allegedly swapping Metallica songs.

The latest version of Napster makes it easier to locate copyright-free digital music, throwing up furhter links to copyright-free songs by artists who are part of the same musical genre as the band being sought.

The Beta 6 version of Napster also adds some ease-of-use features: a Help section and a simplified search field. Advanced search options are still available.

Napster now supports Microsoft's WMA codex, which rivals the dominant MP3 digital music format. Unlike MP3, WMA files have built-in security that prevents copyright infringements.

"Certainly, it's going be an early test of the [WMA] technology, but certainly not the first," Maclachlan says.

BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, and Sony Music have announced they will offer downloadable digital music in WMA format. Napster is the largest digital music hub, but CuteMX and other music-swapping sites let visitors search and swap WMA files.

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