A news conference in London later Monday by Apple's Steve Jobs and EMI Group could see the announcement that the first of the four big music labels will ditch digital rights management (DRM).
Ever since invitations went out to the event, scheduled for 1 p.m. local time (noon GMT) at EMI's London headquarters, speculation in the media and online has centered on two possibilities: the Beatles catalog coming to the iTunes Music Store, or EMI ditching DRM. The latter is fast becoming the favorite, especially after The Wall Street Journal said such an announcement would come at the event.
DRM is applied to many downloads to prevent illegal copying or sharing of the content, but it also prevents legal copying and can tie users into a certain product or technology. For example, Apple's iPod won't play DRM-protected songs purchased from anything but the iTunes Music Store, while owners of Creative Technology's devices aren't able to use the iTunes store because those downloads are incompatible.
Jobs called for an end to the use of DRM on music files in a blog-like posting on the Apple homepage in February. In it he argued that consumers would benefit because any player would be able to play music from any online music store and not be restricted as it is currently.
"This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat," he wrote.
Reaction from the big four music labels was mixed, with perhaps the strongest response coming from Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman, who said the idea of DRM-free music or movies was "without logic or merit."
EMI, on the other hand, appeared the most receptive to Jobs' call. 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 certainly 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.
Taking restrictions off sharing music won't necessarily mean a big jump in piracy either, he said. While music sharing exists, it falls off as consumers enter adulthood and begin working, so that sharing of content among people over 20 years of age is not that common, even for illegally downloaded music that has no DRM.
"We don't expect the illegal transfer of music will be that common," he said.
EMI's artists include some of the biggest names in music both past and present: The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Janet Jackson, Robbie Williams, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden, The Rolling Stones, Al Green, Moby and Queen.