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A Public Format

Jessicasimpson Sony BMG has discovered the MP3 format, a mere seven years after MP3.com and Napster helped make it the de facto standard for downloadable music. Today, the conglomerate released its first MP3: a bizarre customizable single from Jessica Simpson. For a mere $1.99 - more than twice the price of the typical download, not that Sony BMG hasn’t been trying to make those tracks more expensive, too -- you can download a version of Simpson's "A Public Affair" that name-checks your first name in the chorus. Well, the background singers do, at least. Smashing! It's not all that bad a song, actually, but then, I love the antecedent: Holiday (Immaculate Collection Album Version). And because it's in a DRM-free format, it will work on every MP3 player on the market, including the only one that matters these days. You can't say that for any other track Sony BMG sells online, particularly not those at Sony's online store. To limit copying and guard against piracy, the rest of Sony BMG's catalog is wrapped in DRM, whether it be Apple's, Microsoft's, Real's or Sony's. It's just sad that the company would be so fearful of MP3 that it would use The People's Format only on customized songs (which narrow the sharing possibilities, except for equally self-centered namesakes) sold at premium prices.

Still, I hope the song sells like gangbusters. And I hope all the major labels test the waters, too -- not at $1.99, but at 99 cents. My guess is that the demand will jump, generating more revenue and (with luck) obviating the fears of piracy. After all, CDs are nothing but glorified MP3 delivery systems these days. Why should downloads be any different? And why should indie labels be the only ones who capitalize on the phenomenon?

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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