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Apple Launches DRM-Free iTunes Plus

Apple today launched iTunes Plus, a new addition to its existing iTunes service which offers AAC music tracks from major label EMI at 256 Kbps encoding (twice the rate of standard iTunes purchases) at $1.29 per track—and without Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology. That means users can play iTunes Plus tracks on any music player (or using any application) which supports AAC encoding, rather than the tracks being restricted to playback using iTunes or Apple iPods.

“This is a tremendous milestone for digital music,” said Eric Nicoli, CEO of EMI Group. “Consumers are going to love listening to higher quality iTunes Plus tracks from their favorite EMI artists with no usage restrictions.”

iTunes Plus is available via a new version 7.2 of Apple’s iTunes application for Mac OS X and Windows, available as a free download from Apple. Right now, iTunes Plus features only tracks from EMI (including popular artists like Coldplay, Joss Stone, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and many more), although plainly Apple expects other music distributes to get on board with offering DRM-free downloads via iTunes:

“Our customers are very excited about the freedom and amazing sound quality of iTunes Plus,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We expect more than half of the songs on iTunes will be offered in iTunes Plus versions by the end of this year.”

The complete iTunes catalog—including the EMI tracks available via iTunes Plus—is also still available at $.99 per track at 128 Kbps encoding with FairPlay DRM, so users can continue to pay the same old price (and live with the same old restrictions) if they like.

iTunes will offer to let customers upgrade tracks they’ve already purchased to non-DRM 256 Kbpx AAC versions by paying just the $.30 price difference between the two versions, rather than re-purchasing the track at full price.

EMI is the first record label to offer its catalog in a DRM-free format (making the announcement with Steve Jobs in London in early April), and is hoping that removing cumbersome digital rights management technologies will increase digital music sales and boost EMI’s bottom line: something the company is very concerned about, especially since it’s now set to be acquired by Maltby Limited, an acquisition firm set up by private equity firm Terra Firma in a deal worth about $4.7 billion. The remaining record labels are no doubt watching EMI’s experiment carefully, but industry consensus seems to be that at least some of them will follow EMI into offering DRM-free digital music—particularly if it enables them to charge a premium for their tracks.

In an unrelated announcement, Apple has also launched an iTunes U area within the iTunes store offering free educational content such as course lectures, language lessons, sports highlights, and campus tours from leading U.S. colleges and universities.

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