Label leads way with DRM-free music | Technology | Guardian Unlimited Technology

EMI’s move to release its catalogue without music protection has been welcomed, but critics claim Apple still has a lock-in
Bobbie Johnson
Thursday April 5, 2007
The Guardian

The wired world, so they say, moves faster than meatspace. In that case, one month, three weeks and five days might seem like an awfully long time to the digerati.

But that’s how long it took between Steve Jobs publishing his Thoughts on Music – an open essay telling the recording industry to drop copy protection – and EMI’s announcement this week that it was going to offer downloads without Digital Rights Management (DRM).

Jobs, reading from a script rather than delivering his sermon with the usual practised polish, took the stage in London alongside EMI boss Eric Nicoli to hail the decision as breaking new ground. Campaigners breathlessly welcomed the death of copy protection, and digerati around the web began wildly dancing on the grave of DRM. Are they right?
At first glance, it seems like a situation where everybody wins: the record label can sell to customers without worrying about interoperability; iPod owners can buy from new outlets; Apple can sell to non-iPod users; other retailers can offer downloads from a big label. And, crucially, customers can (hopefully) stop worrying about interoperability.

EMI said its entire catalogue would be available as unprotected tracks for any retailer who wants to sell them – on iTunes, these higher quality tracks will cost 99p, while lower-grade, DRM-laden versions will still cost 79p.

Jobs was bullish about what this would mean for DRM overall, predicting that other major labels will follow suit shortly, and that half of the iTunes Music Store’s 5m tracks would be available as unprotected versions by the end of the year.

It is the first step to vindicating the long-held views of anti-DRM campaigners – and download stores such as Wippit and eMusic that have lobbied tirelessly against copy protection – and was generally welcomed by music sellers.

Wider reach

“This is great news, because we can sell a really significant amount of music to people we couldn’t reach before,” said Ben Drury, founder of download service 7Digital. As well as reaching iPod owners with unprotected MP3s, Drury says it allows many stores to reach previously troublesome markets.

“We can also sell EMI’s tracks to Mac users – Microsoft’s WMA DRM doesn’t work on them – and to people using Linux. It’s a significant minority.”

Some were more sceptical, however, and questioned whether Apple’s move really opens iTunes up to everybody.

“The DRM-free tracks on iTunes are in AAC format, which isn’t supported by the majority of digital music players. Jobs has played a very smart game,” says Mark Mulligan, an analyst with Jupiter Research. “Apple has dropped the proprietary DRM but still have the customer lock-in due to AAC.”

But not everybody believes this to be the case. Although AAC might not have the ubiquity of MP3, it is far from being exclusive to Apple. The iTunes store was the first system to popularise the format, but other adopters include Sony, Nokia, Microsoft and Real.

And, say audiophiles, it is significantly better quality than most other popular formats. An independent survey by Canada’s Communications Research Centre showed that AAC was higher quality than most of its rivals, even when encoded at the same bitrate.

But there were certainly some politics at play, as iTunes and its FairPlay DRM system had become something of a hot potato around Europe. Norway, in particular, has been getting itchy with allegations that iTunes benefits from an anti-competitive link with the iPod, and pressure was building on Apple to avoid a drawn-out court battle – a situation that clearly influenced Jobs’ open letter in February.

And although the EU this week announced that it had sent a Statement of Objections to the major labels and Apple over cross-border restrictions, it seems likely that the EMI deal will have soothed the brows of many critics.

There were other, less travelled aspects of the announcement that could have positive impacts in the long term. For example, if entire catalogues from big labels begin to go DRM-free, some of the hidden costs of restricting rights could also disappear – time spent doing multiple encoding, working on new rights schemes and supporting customers who discover the music they’ve bought won’t play on their desired device.

Experimental credentials

EMI’s motivations for the move were more than simply benevolence – business has been tough for the company, despite a roster of high-profile artists such as Robbie Williams, Coldplay and Lily Allen.

And although the label also hosts digital refuseniks such as the Beatles and Radiohead (who only relented after several years of lobbying by fans), it is keen to promote its experimental credentials – Monday’s press conference saw a performance from Damon Albarn’s latest project, the Good, the Bad and the Queen, for example.

The deal also covers music videos, which will be opened up in the same way, showing how video and audio are coming closer together. And it puts a premium on albums, too, offering bulk purchases at a lower wholesale price.

The implications may be many and varied, but it is likely to take some time for all the wrinkles to shake themselves out. Not every record company is going to simply fall behind the idea, and not every customer is going to get exactly what they want. But nearly all observers agree it is a step in the right direction.

“There’s no doubt about it, this is an interesting and potentially quite encouraging move,” said Dan Cryan, an analyst with Screen Digest.

How do the download stores compare on price, quality and format?

iTunes Music Store

EMI artists 99p, unprotected 256kbps AAC

Others 79p, restricted 128kbps AAC


Bulk buy packages priced at 20-30p per song, unprotected 192kbps MP3


From 29-99p per track, unprotected 172kbps MP3


Up to 99p, across a mixture of formats (protected AAC and WMA, unprotected MP3) all at 192kbps

MSN (provided by OD2)

75p per track, restricted 128kbps WMA

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Label leads way with DRM-free music | Technology | Guardian Unlimited Technology