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EMI, Apple Give DRM-Free Music a Go

UPDATED: EMI today announced it will make its digital music catalog available to online retailers without digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. Apple, the first retailer to sign up, said it will begin selling EMI's catalog DRM-free from the iTunes Store in May.

DRM is the software encoded into most iTunes songs that prevents the music from being played on unlicensed equipment. It's why you can't upload a song onto your iPod from your computer and then download that song onto another person's computer. It's supposed to prevent piracy.

The DRM-free tracks, which will go for $1.29 on iTunes, will also be sold with 256kbps AAC encoding, a higher quality than the 128kbps AAC encoding for 99 cent DRM-enabled iTunes tracks.

ITunes customers who already own EMI songs will be able to upgrade them to the higher quality DRM-free versions for 30 cents a song, according to statement. Apple also said that it will continue to offer its entire catalog in the same versions currently available.

EMI spokesman Adam Grossberg told internetnews.com his company took this "big move forward," because it saw the lack of interoperability was too confusing for listeners.

"It was clear to us that music fans want to be able to buy and transfer their music among different devices and platforms," he said. "The restrictions on that usage seemed to be limiting the true potential of the digital music market."

Today's announcement comes after Apple CEO Steve Jobs called for music labels to stop selling music encrypted with digital rights management software (DRM).

"Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats," Jobs said in an essay posted to Apple's Web site in February.

"In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."

Less than a year before, Jobs expressed public faith in DRM, but in February Jobs said that DRMs "haven't worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy" and that music ripped from DRM-free CDs account for most of the world's music piracy, making DRM only good for preventing customers from using their music how they want.

At the time, EMI Group spokesman Adam Grossberg agreed that the DRM solution isn't perfect.

Grossberg noted a series of experiments EMI conducted with DRM-free music. Norah Jones's "Thinking About You," Relient K's "Must've Done Something Right", and Lily Allen's "Littlest Things" were all made available for sale in the MP3 format in trials held at the end of last year.

EMI CEO Eric Nicoli said today's announcement doesn't mean his company will not continue to protect its intellectual property.

"We will continue to work to fight piracy in all its forms and to educate consumers," Nicoli said in a statement.

"We believe that fans will be excited by the flexibility that DRM-free formats provide, and will see this as an incentive to purchase more of our artists' music."