Commentary

Labels OK DRM-Free ITunes Tracks

In a long overdue move, all the major record labels have agreed to allow Apple to sell tracks without the much-maligned DRM software that limits consumers' ability to transfer music.

As of today, iTunes will sell eight million tracks DRM-free; by March, all 10 million tracks in the company's catalogue will be available without the software. Previously, only EMI allowed its songs to be sold on iTunes without DRM.

There was never much justification for the major labels to insist that tracks sold on Apple come bundled with DRM that restricts people's ability to play the music on devices other than iPods. Tech-savvy users always knew how to get around the restrictions, but the software frustrated other iTunes users who wanted to transfer tracks for perfectly lawful reasons.

It also spawned new businesses that existed solely to strip the DRM from the tracks, such as DoubleTwist -- a venture launched by Norwegian hacker Jon Lech Johansen. Additionally, Apple's DRM resulted in antitrust lawsuits accusing the company of unfairly tying iTunes users to iPods.

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Apple always claimed it had no choice in the matter, arguing that the record labels insisted on DRM. But in the last few years, the labels have allowed iTunes competitors Amazon, Wal-Mart and MySpace to sell tracks without the software.

DRM also caused problems for companies that moved to DRM-free sales and wanted to end support for the software. In the last year, at least three companies -- Wal-Mart, Yahoo and Microsoft -- announced they intended to end DRM support, in effect stranding customers who had purchased tracks. Ultimately, all three retreated from their plans in the face of public backlash, with Yahoo offering refunds, and Microsoft and Wal-Mart delaying the moves.

How will Apple deal with DRM in the future? The company hasn't indicated it will stop supporting the old tracks. At least not yet. Instead, as of today, it's offering people the chance to upgrade to DRM-free tracks for 30 cents per song -- which could be a very pricey option for the store's biggest customers.

2 comments about "Labels OK DRM-Free ITunes Tracks ".
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  1. Michael George from Self-employed, January 6, 2009 at 4:44 p.m.

    Let's see if I understand. I have to pay to remove something I never wanted in the first place!

  2. Matthew Maginley from Maginley & Company, January 6, 2009 at 4:51 p.m.

    The issue is that there are 6 billion downloads a year through peer 2 peer, torrent sites, etc, and iTunes does about 1 billion. iTunes is not the problem per se.

    When an advertiser offers the downloads, consumers are all over their site rather than risk the viruses of the so-called "free music sites" and paying almost $1.00 a track.

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