EMI Group has announced a plan to sell its music through online retailers without copy-protection technologies, a significant move that should give consumers greater freedom in the way they can listen to music purchased online.
Apple's iTunes Store will be the first to offer the new-format downloads, which it said will be of a higher sound quality—but also carry a higher price—than existing offerings.
EMI Group Chairman Eric Nicoli was joined by Apple CEO Steve Jobs to make the announcement Monday at EMI's headquarters in London. EMI becomes the first of the big music labels to announce such a move, which could create pressure on other labels to follow suit.
EMI said it will release all its digital music repertoire for sale without digital rights management (DRM) technologies. Its artists include Gorillaz, Robbie Williams and The Rolling Stones.
Apple will sell individual tracks from EMI artists at twice the sound quality of existing downloads, with DRM removed, at a price of US$1.29, 1.29 euros or 0.99 pounds. The iTunes store will continue to sell tracks with DRM at the existing sound quality for $0.99, 0.99 euros or 0.79 pounds. Apple will sell both types of track in the open AAC format. It will sell full albums in the higher sound-quality format, and will offer customers the chance to upgrade existing tracks to the new format for $0.30, 0.30 euros or 0.20 pounds per track.
Opposition has been mounting steadily to the industry's use of DRM, which prevents consumers from copying music illegally, but also creates what many see as unfair restrictions on the way consumers can listen to songs they have legally purchased.
Most notably, Apple's proprietary DRM system prevents people who buy songs from its market-leading iTunes store from playing them easily on any music player other than Apple iPods. That restriction has attracted criticism, particularly from regulators in Europe who say it unfairly limits customer choice.
In February, Jobs called for an end to the use of DRM on music files in a letter posted on Apple's website. Jobs' open letter argued that consumers would benefit because any player would be able to play music from any online retailer.
Reaction to Jobs' call from the major music labels was mixed. Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman said the idea of DRM-free music is "without logic or merit."
EMI appeared more receptive to Jobs' call, however. The company had already experimented with offering DRM-free music a couple of months earlier when it offered MP3 files by Norah Jones and Relient K through Yahoo's music store.
A switch to DRM-free music will be good news for consumers, said Bryan Wang, an analyst with InStat in Singapore. Speaking on Monday ahead of the announcement, he said that consumers don't necessarily understand DRM and just want to be able to play purchased music on all their devices.
Removing the DRM won't necessarily mean a big jump in piracy, he said. The illegal sharing of music tends to drop off as consumers enter adulthood and begin working, so sharing content among people over about 20 is not that common. "We don't expect the illegal transfer of music will be that common," he said.
Other EMI artists include The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Janet Jackson, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden, Al Green, Moby and Queen.
Some had speculated that EMI planned to announce that the Beatles' music would be available on iTunes. The Beatles have not yet released their music online, however.