The music won’t be free, will cost users about the same as the price of a couple of CDs per month, and will not be wrapped in any kind of digital rights management technology. Unlike music available through subscription services such as Napster or Rhapsody, downloaded tracks can be transferred to any player, including iPhones and iPods, and will not time-out if users cancel their subscriptions.

The unlimited access to Universal’s catalog is expected to begin by Christmas. Virgin says it is talking to other labels about participating in the arrangement, according to the BBC.

For its part of the deal, Virgin Media will work to actively search for and deter illicit file sharing on its networks, expected to take the form of “graduated responses” that, if ignored, could lead to temporarily cutting users off from their broadband connections. Permanent disconnection is not part of the plan.

Whether the program succeeds depends on recording industry participation. If other labels participate, the service could rival iTunes or Amazon MP3. After all, if you could download no-strings-attached, unlimited music for a monthly fee, would you continue to buy songs at just under a dollar a pop?

“It is very encouraging to see an ISP and a record label working together as creative partners,” said Geoff Taylor, head of the British Phonographic Industry, the U.K.’s equivalent to the Recording Industry Association of America. “At the same time, the fact that Virgin Media will apply a graduated response system to tackle persistent illegal downloaders demonstrates that graduated response is a proportionate and workable way forward.”

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