Free your music

The Beatles once sang “You say you want a revolution/Well, you know/We all want to change the world.” Last week, The Beatles’ record label, EMI, took a big step toward changing the world — at least the world of digital media — for the better.

Last Monday in London, EMI, one of the big four record labels in the music industry (the others being Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group), announced a shocking change in its digital music sales strategy: The company will begin offering its entire catalog of music on iTunes without any digital rights management (DRM) software, for an extra 30 cents tacked on to the price tag of each song.

Since Apple first launched its iTunes Music Store in 2003, every single song it sold has been laced with a technology called FairPlay. This software limits the song’s playback capabilities; you can only play it through iTunes or on an iPod, or burn it to a CD. Nothing else was capable of playing it. It was tied to your e-mail address, with which you could authorize up to five computers to play any song linked to your account. If you tried to play the song on a non-authorized computer, you would receive an error message.

And so, in almost four years, nothing changed in the system. Apple sold hundreds of millions of iPods and more than two billion songs on iTunes, and hardly anyone batted an eyelash. For users, songs worked with their iPod and with their computer, and that’s all that really mattered. Several foreign governments started recognizing Apple’s dominance in the music sales field as a monopoly of sorts, and demanded they allow other music stores to use their FairPlay encryption, in order to loosen the grip of the iPod-iTunes hegemony.

The music industry repeatedly shrugged off claims from a vocal minority that its insistence on DRM technology was hurting consumers. When Sony’s rootkit security debacle compromised thousands of computers thanks to the company’s own brand of DRM in 2005, the concept of DRM encryption reached the public — and while there was a brief outcry at the time, the issue, and the technology, soon faded. The party line, that customers wanted their music crippled with DRM, continued.

So imagine the public’s surprise when the CEO of EMI, Eric Niccli, announced that starting next month, every single song from EMI available on iTunes was going to be sold without any encryption and with higher-quality sound for $1.29, as opposed to the standard 99 cents per-song price. Normal, FairPlay-compliant versions of the tracks would still be available for 99 cents, and the full-album pricing structure would remain intact, even with the higher-quality tracks.

Steve Jobs was quoted last week by Gizmodo, a personal technology blog, as saying that he expected “more than half the songs on iTunes in DRM-free versions by the end of the year.” Microsoft, too, is likely to follow suit and offer DRM-free songs for its fledgling Zune platform. This past week saw a welcome change to how the music industry regards its customers, and one can only hope that the rest of the market follows EMI’s forward-looking decision that benefits consumers.