Time to ring DRM death knell?

Would you pay a premium price for content just so you can use it in any way you see fit? Music label EMI Group is hoping you would.

Would you pay a premium price for content just so you can use it in any way you see fit? Music label EMI Group is hoping you would.

From next month, it will begin selling digital music with no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions--and better sound quality--on Apple's iTunes online store.

Under this initiative, consumers will pay US$1.29 per song, 30 cents more than the standard 99-cent iTune downloads, while entire albums can be purchased at the same price as regular iTunes albums. With EMI's DRM-free music, iTunes users will be able to consume the tracks without any restriction on the types or number of devices that the songs can be played on.

The audio tracks are also encoded in 256 kilobit per second (kbps) AAC format, twice the current encoding rate of 128 kbps. AAC, or Advanced Audio Coding, an industry standard compression and encoding format for digital audio. Apple uses the AAC format for all audio tracks sold on the iTunes Store.

Standard iTunes tracks are encrypted with Apple's FairPlay DRM technology, effectively preventing users from playing the audio files on unauthorized computers or devices. For example, FairPlay-encrypted tracks may be copied to any number of iPod audio players but only up to five authorized computers.

EMI Group CEO Eric Nicoli said the company's initiative addresses the lack of interoperability, and will help boost sales of digital music because it allows consumers to choose their device or platform of choice.

I'm wondering if it could also spell the end of DRM use in how content is sold.

Sudhanshu Sarronwala, CEO of regional online and mobile music store Soundbuzz, noted that he has received feedback over the last few years from customers wanting to buy DRM-free music in order to bypass interoperability problems. They want to be able to use music they've downloaded to a PC or a MP3 player, Sarronwala said.

He noted that with the exception of the "big four" music labels--EMI, Warner Music Group, Sony BMG and Universal Music Group--there are "thousands" of other labels including those from Asia and Australia, that already offer DRM-free licenses and have been doing so over the last two years. Together, the big four labels control some 70 percent of the international music market.

Available to users across Asia--with particular focus on India, Singapore and Australia--Soundbuzz carries about 100 record labels including songs from the big four and the region's domestic heavyweights.

But while EMI is not the first label to market DRM-free music, it is the first of the "big four" to do so and that is the significance of the announcement, Sarronwala said.

Popular U.S. online music store eMusic, for example, enjoys a healthy business carrying a database of DRM-free music from 8,000 labels, even selling them at a discounted price--rather than at a premium, he noted.

"EMI is labeling [its DRM-free content] as a premium service so we're interested to see how the consumers in Asia would react... We don't know as yet whether they will be willing to pay a premium price [for it]," he said.

At the end of the day, though, it's still about experimenting. Mark Lim, a lawyer who heads the intellectual property practice at Singapore law firm Tan Peng Ching, noted that it's still too early to say whether or how successful such initiatives will prove to be.

"If it works, then many others and even those in the software or games industry may well adopt the same model," Lim said. "Suffice to say that there will be radical changes [because of the Internet platform] in the way these companies conduct business."

The Web removes the need to spend money on getting a retail space, hiring a middleman or buying discs in order to sell and distribute content. And some businesses have been able to exploit the Internet and gain much cost savings from using it as a platform to deliver content.

Lim said: "At the moment, the smaller organizations are already exploiting it because they're more flexible. The bigger organizations already have standards in place so they will need more time to change their processes."

"I think everyone is trying to ascertain what is going to be the best way forward. So there are little experiments here and there... I don't think anybody has decided definitively that this or that is the way to go," he said.

Well, at least, not yet. Personally, I'm convinced that a realm without DRM restrictions, specifically anti-circumvention DRM measures, can be the only way forward.

Consumers should have the ability to use content--whether it's music, games or software--which they've obtained legally, in any way they see fit. They've paid good money to acquire it, and should be held in good faith to consume it in ways that do not breach copyright laws.

More importantly, why should consumers--with a genuine intention to do good by the law--be made to suffer the inconvenience of having to deal with interoperability problems simply because a group of corporate bigwigs suffer from a bad case of paranoia?

In rejecting the use of DRM, Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman said: "Desire for profit, though not wrong in itself, cannot justify denying the public control over its technology."

Isn't it time to ring the DRM death knell?

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