Apple and EMI's Interesting Announcement

In a very interesting twist to the continuing DRM soap opera, this week Apple and EMI announced that they will be offering EMI’s entire selection of songs on the iTunes music store in a both a higher quality and unencumbered by Apple’s FairPlay DRM (and at a higher price). This is a very important milestone in digital music. For the first time, major label music will be available to purchase digitally without DRM spoiling the experience.

One of the most over looked aspects of this move is that music players other than iPods will be able to play the tracks from the iTunes store. Many have argued the DRM present in music bought from the iTunes store forces people to buy Apple’s products. I have always maintained this is not the case. People buy, and repeat buy, iPods because they like the iPod itself, rather than because they feel locked in by FairPlay. Now Apple is putting this contention to the test. Time will tell whether I was correct.

(Before any one complains that many players don’t support AAC, most decoding chips used in players today support AAC decoding, but the firmware doesn’t enable it. I’d imagine there will be quite a bit of firmware updates released in the near future correcting this omission.)

One aspect of the deal that is confusing is the conflation of two factors. Firstly, the new tracks have no DRM and secondly they are of higher quality. This makes it hard to say, definitively, which factor is the cause of any sales differential between the normal, FairPlay bound tracks and the same tracks in the DRM free version. I suspect this is because Apple and EMI didn’t want to make this into a straight DRM vs non-DRM purchasing choice. It allows them to say “people will pay more for higher quality tracks” rather than “people hate DRM and are willing to pay a premium to avoid it”, which would result in a lot of “well, duh” comments, should sales of the non-DRM music be better than the DRM-using media.

There are many tracks on the iTunes music store that I wish to buy, but I have refused to do so because of FairPlay. I hope this experiment in DRM-free music is successful for Apple and is extended to cover music I wish to buy. EMI may even have something I like in their catalog, in which case perhaps I shall feel compelled to buy it to support the cause.