EMI Group has announced a plan to sell its music online without copy protection technologies, a significant step that will give consumers greater freedom in the way they can listen to music purchased online.
The music without DRM (digital rights management) technology will also have a higher audio quality, offering a sound close to that of the original recordings, according to EMI. But it will also come at a higher price, with each DRM-free song costing about 20 percent more than current downloads.
The announcement was made at EMI's headquarters in London on Monday by EMI Group Chairman Eric Nicoli. He was joined by Steve Jobs, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., whose iTunes music store will become the first online retailer to offer the DRM-free music.
"EMI's entire digital music catalogue will be available DRM-free on iTunes in May," Jobs said at the press event, which was also broadcast on the Web.
Jobs called EMI's move "the next big step forward in the digital music revolution," and said it will enable consumers to play songs from iTunes on any digital music player that supports the open AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) audio format.
Jobs said he will now try to negotiate similar deals with the other three big music labels, and predicted that half of the 5 million songs available through iTunes will be available DRM-free by the end of the year.
Apple will continue to offer EMI's music with the DRM technology and at its current audio quality, for customers who don't want to pay extra, Jobs said. And EMI expects to sign similar deals with other online retailers, Nicoli said.
Opposition has been mounting steadily to the industry's use of DRM, which prevents consumers from copying music illegally, but also creates what many see as unfair restrictions on the way they can listen to songs they have legally purchased.
Most notably, Apple's DRM system prevents songs bought from iTunes from being played easily on any music player other than Apple iPods. That restriction has attracted criticism, particularly from European regulators who say it unfairly limits customer choice.
That will now cease to be the case, Jobs said Monday, although consumers will have to pay extra for the added freedom.
EMI's DRM-free music will be priced on iTunes at US$1.29, €1.29 or £0.99 for each song, compared to the current price of $0.99, €0.99 or £0.79. The DRM-free music will be available at 256K bps (bits per second) AAC, compared to today's quality of 128K bps AAC, Jobs said.
"Our research tells us that consumers would pay a higher price for a digital music file which they could use on any player," EMI's Nicoli said.
If consumers buy whole albums, rather than individual songs, the price for the DRM-free version, including the improved audio quality, will be the same as that of the DRM version, Jobs said. The music industry has been encouraging more album sales, which have been declining alongside the rise of digital music.
Customers will be able to "upgrade" their existing music collection to the new format by paying the difference in price for each song. For a library of 1,000 songs that should be about $300 in the U.S.; €300 in Europe and £200 in the U.K.
Jobs called for an end to the use of DRM in February, in a letter posted on Apple's Web site. Jobs' open letter argued that consumers would benefit because any player would be able to play music from any online retailer.