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The Sound of Copy Restrictions Crashing

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, May 17, 2007

The idea of ditching "digital rights management" for music downloads is rapidly changing from dream to business reality -- and faster than anybody might have hoped.

Amazon said yesterday that it would open an online store that stocks only MP3 music files without copying restrictions. That would be huge news, except that Amazon is only catching up with Apple, which announced in early April that it would offer DRM-free downloads by the end of this month.

Both stores have the public backing of EMI, one of the four big record labels, which yesterday also said it would sell unrestricted music downloads at some European sites.

This should delight customers, who will no longer have to worry about being able to listen to their song files on their next music player or their computer. But it must unsettle many music industry executives.

Abandoning the copy-control systems meant to stop people from sharing a new digital purchase on the Internet -- but which also keep buyers from listening to these downloads on unauthorized hardware or software -- remains heresy in much of Hollywood.

But when the biggest music download store, one of the biggest CD retailers and a Big Four record label think they should drop that approach, it means things have changed drastically.

We are no longer talking about shovelfuls of dirt on the coffin of computer-enforced copying restrictions; that sound you hear is the beep-beep-beep of the dump truck backing up to the grave site.

ITunes shoppers won't have long to wait for this liberation from copying limits. Apple says the new downloads will be available by the end of this month at $1.29 a song (30 cents more than for the current, limited versions). Albums will cost the same with or without usage restrictions. These new downloads will also come at a higher bit rate, meaning they should sound better but will take up twice as much space on your iPod or computer.

Amazon customers may face a longer delay, as the Seattle retailer won't specify a launch date more specific than "later this year." It also won't talk about pricing or describe its inventory besides saying the store will carry the catalogues of EMI and "more than 12,000" other labels.

Amazon did, however, offer hints. Bill Carr, the site's vice president of digital media, suggested that the download store would follow the same basic pattern as Amazon's CD store: "A couple of our tried-and-true tenets are broad selection and great prices."

That suggests Amazon expects to sell music from all the major labels, not just EMI. The minor labels, many of which don't share the majors' fixation on copying restrictions, are probably already on board.

A publicist for one Washington-area independent label confirmed yesterday that his employer's catalogue would be carried on Amazon. He put the phone down to confirm the details of that arrangement, then picked it up and said with a laugh, "Apparently, we've signed a nondisclosure act. So I wasn't even supposed to tell you that we're one of those labels."

If Amazon's download store mirrors the outlines of its CD store, you can also expect labels to compete on price -- something Apple doesn't like.

Apple and Amazon should soon have company. In addition to the many sites that stock MP3s from smaller labels -- for example, eMusic, Amie Street and Other Music -- Yahoo has experimented with selling regular MP3s, and MySpace has revealed plans for its own MP3 store.

When copy-restriction routines no longer lock songs to certain players or programs, a few other things will change.

Music buyers can return to treating their purchases as their property -- reselling as they see fit or passing them on to their heirs. They will also be free to choose digital-music formats, programs and players based on their price and quality, instead of being limited to those supported by one download store.

Apple's iPod -- which dominated the market before the arrival of the iTunes Store -- should still do well, as should the Advanced Audio Coding format Apple uses for iTunes downloads. But Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format could be drifting onto the rocks; its biggest fans aren't users but the stores that sell copy-controlled WMA files.

Some of those users will still take music online without paying for it. DRM has yet to make a meaningful dent in that, but convenient, fairly priced and well-stocked download stores like iTunes have.

As people get in the habit of enjoying downloads from various sites on all of their devices -- not just some -- more of them may wonder why their movies remain trapped inside the usage restrictions that once encumbered their music.

Why, for example, should Apple's iTunes or Amazon's Unbox sell video downloads that can't even be burned to DVD? Doesn't the same logic apply to movies? How long until some enterprising studio makes the same decision as EMI and decides to give customers what they want?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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