Universal to test sales of DRM-free music

Universal Music Group is the latest major music label to test the waters with the sale of tunes that can be downloaded without copy protection software.

Universal Music Group (UMG) is the latest major music label to offer music downloads without copy protection.

As part of a six-month test to end in January, UMG, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Vivendi Universal, will sell a wide range of albums and songs from artists such as 50 Cent, Black Eyed Peas and Sting -- in MP3 format, without DRM (digital rights management) copy protection, the music company confirmed Friday.

In May, rival EMI Group began selling a selection of its music DRM-free through outlets including Apple's iTunes Store -- the first company to sell unprotected music that way. Universal, though, does not plan to sell its DRM-free tracks through iTunes. This follows its announcement at the start of July that it will not automatically offer all its music for Apple to sell through iTunes.

DRM technologies are designed to combat piracy, and control the terms on which content downloaded from the Internet can be copied or transferred to other devices. But some industry critics have argued that DRM is complex to implement, can unfairly prevent people from playing music or videos they purchase on any device they want and is downright unpopular with music fans.

A survey of U.K. consumers, conducted by Entertainment Media Research Ltd. and released earlier this month, revealed that 68 percent of the 1,700 people polled said the only music worth purchasing is DRM-free, with most of them echoing the view of industry critics that DRM invades their rights to hear their music on different platforms.

As part of its six-month DRM-free test, UMG will offer content in the MP3 format through the Web sites of a number of retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores, Best Buy Co. and Amazon.com, as well as artist and label-branded Web sites, such as ryan-adams.com and islandrecords.com. Most of the music will be available to these retailers at standard wholesale prices.

In addition, UMG hopes to spur DRM-free downloads using Google Inc.'s AdWords advertising service. The idea of connecting Google ads to consumers directly should help make the search and purchasing process much easier because many people use Google to search for music online, according to UMG.

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