EMI Says Goodbye to DRM

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In what may prove to be a sea change in the way the music industry thinks about digital music sales, UK record label EMI has announced in conjunction with Apple that it will offer its entire music library for sale without digital rights management (DRM) technology. Tracks will go on sale via iTunes in May, 2007, and Apple will offer the non-protected tracks at twice the bit-rate of current iTunes selections: 256 kbps AAC encoding, as opposed to the 128 kbps encoding applied to protected AAC content currently for sale.

In a first for Apple, the non-protected tracks will cost more than Apple’s long-sacred $0.99-per-track pricing: non-protected tracks will cost $1.29 apiece; in Europe, tracks will go for €1.29, and in the UK pricing will reach 99 pence per track. The deal also extends to EMI music videos: they will be available in non-DRM format without any price change.

Apple also plans to offer a one-click solution so iTunes customers can "upgrade" DRM-protected trakcs they’ve already purchased to non-DRM versions for $0.30 (oer €0.30, or 20 pence) each. Apple will continue to offer EMI tracks in protected AAC alongside the unprotected versions.

"We are going to give iTunes customers a choice—the current versions of our songs for the same 99 cent price, or new DRM-free versions of the same songs with even higher audio quality and the security of interoperability for just 30 cents more," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "We think our customers are going to love this, and we expect to offer more than half of the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of this year."

The move comes roughly two months after Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the unusual step of issuing a public statement in which he declared Apple would abandon protecting content on iTunes with DRM "in a heartbeat" if only the record labels didn’t insist on the technology. Digital rights management systems are designed to prevent unauthorized copying, re-distribution, and repurposing of digital content. Historically, music labels have viewed DRM technology as essential to protecting content sold via the Internet, while the everyday reality has usually been that the technology restricts consumers rights and prevents them from doing perfectly reasonable things with music they’ve purchased (like transfer it to portable media players, home stereos, computers, or (gasp!) sharing a favorite track with a friend.

Tracks purchased from the iTunes store are protected with Apple’s FairPlay DRM technology, which means authorized users can play protected tracks within the iTunes application and on iPod music players by authorized users. Apple has declined to license FairPlay, so (for the most part) other companies haven’t been able to offer products or applications which support protected music from Apple’s store.

EMI is the world’s third largest record labels; major acts include Robbie Williams, Pink Floyd, Coldplay, and—of course—the Beatles, who have yet to release their catalog for sale via the Internet. Today’s announcement contained no news on when Beatles music might become available online, safe for a very brief comment from EMI chief ERic Nicoli: "We’re working on it."

EMI says other online music vendors will make their own decisions in coming weeks about whether to offer EMI’s music catalog without DRM: options will apparently include unprotected AAC, Windows Media, and MP3 formats.

Although EMI has previously experimented with releasing individual tracks withut DRM protection, the rest of the music industry appears to be taking a "wait and see" stance towards EMI’s move, feeling that releasing a few singles to promote individual artists and albums isn’t enough market research to predict what might happen when making an entire music catalog available withouth copy protection. But if EMI’s experiment succeeds—meaning, increases online music sales for EMI—then other major music distributors will have little choice but to consider abandoning DRM themselves.

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