I had to double- and triple-check the dateline on this press release, not because it's foolish, but because it is so far from what we've heard the near-unanimous record labels saying for so long. But the dateline is April 2, so that must mean that EMI really is launching DRM-free superior sound quality downloads across its entire digital repertoire:
London, 2 April 2007 -- EMI Music today announced that it is launching new premium downloads for retail on a global basis, making all of its digital repertoire available at a much higher sound quality than existing downloads and free of digital rights management (DRM) restrictions.
According to the announcement, in May EMI will make its catalogue available on the iTunes music store in 256 kbps unencrypted AAC files at $1.29 per track. That's double the bitrate and free from digital rights management, as compared to the standard DRM-encumbered iTunes offerings at $.99-per-track.
What does this mean for music fans and copyright watchers? For music fans, it's another option that is better than previously available EMI downloads on two axes: higher sound quality and better interoperability. At twice the bitrate, you'll hear fewer compression artifacts. The unencrypted AAC files will play on any device that supports AAC, unlike the FairPlay-burdened iTunes files that play only on iPods and iTunes computers that have authorized to the Apple mothership. If your device doesn't support AAC, iTunes offers to convert to MP3. That means you can take authorized downloads to your Squeezebox or GNU/Linux PC. You can still get higher quality, more interoperable files by ripping your own from CD, but without the right-away convenience of downloads.
For the copyright-watcher, the move suggests that EMI management is cooling to the standard "piracy" line for DRM and the claim that it "keeps honest people honest." They've seen that DRM'd tracks end up fileshared just as quickly, while inconveniencing the honest users who want to move beyond the iPod. Moreover, they've seen the chief effect of DRM has been to lock both listeners and record labels to Apple's sales chain, since only Apple offers FairPlay and no other DRM plays on the popular iPod. Perhaps EMI recognizes its music is most valuable if listeners can choose their own playback technologies, rather than being restricted to the complements EMI determines and licenses. It also means that Apple has been willing to walk Steve Jobs's talk:
The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. 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.
At the same time, EMI has put a lot of variables into its experiment, as Ed Felten notes. Will people be willing to pay more for unencumbered tunes? Will they be doing so for the lack of DRM or the higher sound quality? Will they be pleased or puzzled by the dual pricing structure, as DRM-laden EMI tracks will still be available for $.99? Were the players spooked by European antitrust investigators? It may be some time before we can analyze the whole picture, but this DRM rollback is a promising start.