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Free ‘DRM-Free’ Music

Now that EMI and Universal have announced / started offering DRM free music, it only looks like a matter of time before the other two major labels (i.e. Warner Music Group and SonyBMG) follow suite. The question is how will they do so, and what are the likely impacts of these developments?

In the first instance, it would appear that DRM free music is a ‘no brainer’ option that should have been offered right from the start, but that would be the proverbial 20/20 hindsight vision talking. Sometimes we need severe pain to achieve the clarity of vision required to make very bold decisions. In this instance the two companies have chosen slightly different approaches to implementing their DRM-free music offers as follows:

  1. In April 2007, EMI launched a global premium download initiative that offered higher quality downloadable versions of its entire repertoire without DRM protection. This was initially only available on Apple’s iTunes music store, but has since expanded to include other retailers including Amazon’s soon to be launched music store.
  2. On the other hand Universal Music Group announced its intention to continue testing digital music sales options by offering thousands of albums and tracks for sale without DRM (but only within the trial period of August 2007 – January 2008). It has enlisted several outlets for this experiment including; Rhapsody, Wal-Mart, Google and Amazon, but significantly excluded Apple’s iTunes.

Both companies see DRM-free music as only another option to market; and they sited the lack of DRM interoperability, (and the resulting inconvenience to consumer), as a major factor in their decision. The main difference is related to their apparent degree of commitment, EMI has offered everything in its repertoire, but Universal has chosen a more measured, trials-based, approach. In any case, it now remains to be seen when, rather than whether, the other two major record companies will join the fun.

Does this mean the end of DRM? I am not so sure, because according to a DRMWatch article, two recent consumer surveys show that users are slowly becoming more aware of and, dare I say, accepting of DRM. Furthermore, there is now some speculation that Universal’s DRM-free experiment may include forensic watermarking technology in the music files which could perhaps be used to identify the purchasor of the DRM-free tracks.

Hmmm, not so DRM-free after all it would appear. In any case, our penchant for ‘free’ may soon lead to cost-free, DRM-free music. Now wouldn’t that be something? Wait a minute, I think that already happened with Napster back in 2000!

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