DRM-less music? Let consumers decide

Customers can decide if they want to pay extra to get rid of DRM

News of a pending announcement was buried among the April Fools Day fake stories on the techie Web sites. EMI, the world's third largest music company, and Apple were going to hold a joint press conference in London on April 2. It turned out that the press conference was real but there still may be a joke in here for someone.

EMI announced that it is going to make its "entire digital repertoire" available on iTunes at a higher quality and without digital rights management (DRM) restrictions for 30 percent more than the price for the normal good quality music with DRM. (see here and here ). Both versions of the music will be available on iTunes starting in May. Customers who already bought EMI music from iTunes will be able to upgrade to the higher quality and DRM-free version for 30 cents per song.

Now customers can decide if they want to pay extra to get rid of DRM.

This is not a completely clean test of this issue because it will not be possible to know if people are paying more for quality or flexibility.

This announcement follows Steve Jobs' published musings on music and DRM by less than two months.

In that posting, Jobs noted that most music played on iPods did not come from iTunes. He said that as much as 97 percent came from CDs or other sources of DRM-free content and he challenged the music industry to license their content for publication on iTunes without DRM. EMI has met the challenge. Jobs said at the press conference that he expects other record companies will follow EMI's lead and that there will be 2.5 million songs available in the higher quality and DRM-free versions by the end of the year on iTunes.

We will not know for a while if there is a joke in this announcement and if there is who the joke is on.

It's unlikely that the joke will be on EMI since it already sells millions of DRM-free digital CDs each year and since the illegal music sharing networks already have all of EMI's music ready for free download. Adding some DRM-free iTunes digital songs to that mix will not make any significant difference.

It's unlikely that the joke will be on Apple since it's not the DRM in iTunes and iPods that makes them so good; it's the user interface and ease of use of iTunes and its integration with the iPod. It is also the way that the DRM is mostly hidden from the user. A DRM-free iTunes will not be worse and iPods have always been able to play DRM-free content.

I hope the joke will be on the companies that did not learn from the experiences of PC software vendors more than a decade ago or the experience of Intuit only a few years ago (see: Mission accomplished? ) that DRM did not stop theft, but only really affected honest customers.

It will be hard not to laugh if, a year or so from now, most music will be DRM free and the music companies are still selling more music than ever. Any laughter will be bitter though because of how long it took and how much money was spent in not learning the lessons of history.

Disclaimer: Laughter is a topic of study at Harvard (maybe bitter laughter at the School of Government), but I did not consult the university on this column, so the above exploration is my own.

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