iTunes, Unrestricted: Apple, EMI Agree To Drop Digital Rights Management

Higher-sound-quality files priced at $1.29; Beatles music not part of the deal.

It wasn't the announcement Beatles fans had been waiting for, but at a joint press conference Monday morning (April 2), Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs and the CEO of the EMI Group, Eric Nicoli, announced that Apple's iTunes will begin selling most of EMI's catalog with no Digital Rights Management copy protection.

"EMI and iTunes are once again teaming up to move the digital music industry forward by giving music fans higher quality audio that is virtually indistinguishable from the original recordings, with no usage restrictions on the music they love from their favorite artists," Nicoli said in a statement.

"Selling digital music DRM-free is the right step forward for the music industry," Jobs said about the protection-free, higher-sound-quality files that will be sold at a premium price ($1.29 per song versus the standard 99 cents) beginning in May. "EMI has been a great partner for iTunes and is once again leading the industry as the first major music company to offer its entire digital catalog DRM-free."

Though the long sought-after Beatles catalog was not part of the deal, the move by one of the four major labels to offer a large portion of its catalog without any DRM software was a major step, one that Jobs advocated earlier this year in an open letter posted on the Apple Inc. site (see "Apple's Steve Jobs Ready To Scrap iTunes Copy Protection").

In that letter, Jobs argued that there was no reason for labels to continue using DRM on downloads, since they still sell more than 90 percent of their music on CDs, which don't have copy protection. The announcement means that customers buying EMI's music on iTunes can now play the songs on devices other than iPods and make multiple copies for friends. Songs from the EMI catalog that have already been purchased will be available in the DRM-free version for a 30-cent-per-song upgrade. Full DRM-free albums will sell at the same price as regular iTunes albums.

Before the deal was announced, one rival record executive questioned the wisdom of EMI's move. "It's problematic," the unnamed executive told Reuters. "EMI haven't tested it enough so they don't know what the market reaction is going to be to open MP3s. ... The issues are, will MP3s help expand the market and how will it affect piracy? We just don't know."

EMI tested the waters earlier this year by offering DRM-free downloads of the Norah Jones single "Thinking About You," as well as the Lily Allen song "Littlest Things." Among the artists in the EMI catalog whose songs will be available for download free of copy protection as part of the deal are the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Gorillaz, Joss Stone, 30 Seconds to Mars, Korn, Pink, Lily Allen, Pink Floyd and Janet Jackson. The DRM-free program — which also applies to EMI videos with no change in price — will offer songs in the AAC format at 256 kbps, which is twice the current bit rate of 128 kbps.

The move by EMI, the world's fourth-largest record label, is expected to put pressure on the top three to consider dropping DRM as well. Universal Music Group has tested the market with copy-protection-free songs from Jesse McCartney and Sony BMG tried it with Jessica Simpson's "A Public Affair" last summer, but so far none of the other three has committed to heeding Jobs' call.

Jobs predicted that by the end of this year more than half of the songs on iTunes will be available in DRM-free versions, and EMI announced that it expects to offer the DRM-free songs at a variety of other digital music outlets soon. EMI will, however, continue to use DRM on unlimited access monthly subscription services, time-limited downloads and deals that allow fans to share music with friends. The press conference included a short performance by The Good, the Bad and the Queen.

For complete digital music coverage, check out the Digital Music Reports.