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Apple opens DRM-free zone

Itunes_plus As promised earlier this year, Apple unveiled an "iTunes Plus" section of its virtual music store today. How appropriate -- the song files are extra large! Of course, that's not what it's about. The Plus section contains tracks with significantly less compression (for higher fidelity) and no electronic locks (for wider interoperability). Most of the material is from EMI labels -- including a small portion of Paul McCartney's solo oeuvre, a recent addition to EMI's digital offerings -- although there are scattered offerings from some indie labels.

The reporting on this topic has focused on the DRM-free aspect of the songs, including the premium charged for unlocked singles (and not just by EMI -- even indie-label tracks are going for 1.29), the potential impact on piracy, and the legacy of problems caused by incompatible DRMs used by Apple, Microsoft, RealNetworks and Sony. IMHO, too much of the coverage has dwelled on how Apple's move could solve the DRM incompatibility that afflicts portable players. Music fans have found a solution that that one: by an overwhelming majority, they buy iPods and shop at iTunes, which use the same copy-protection technology. What's been overlooked is the nasty effect DRMs have on networking, reducing consumers' ability to enjoy the music they've bought.

Here's what I mean. As I wrote this, I listened to a band called A Sunny Day in Glasgow. As the name implies, it's a rare treat (even though the band's from Philly). I downloaded its album (Scribble Mural Comic Journal) from eMusic, which sells MP3s through monthly subscriptions. The songs are stored on the Dell PC in my kitchen, which holds just about every song I own. The computer runs software from a company called Avvenu that lets me tap into my collection from any other Internet-connected PC or Windows-based Smartphone, as long as my Dell is turned on. Everything worked perfectly until I tried to tune in a couple of tracks from the Gorillaz' Demon Days that I'd purchased a while back from iTunes. The DRM blocked the tracks from streaming to the remote computer. Bummer! That's why I don't like DRM -- it's incompatible with the MP3-based music infrastructure I've built up in my home, car and portable devices (an infrastructure, incidentally, that the consumer electronics industry has promoted because it craves compatibility). When I get back home, I'll either upgrade those tracks to the iTunes Plus version (at 30 cents a pop), or burn them onto a CD and re-rip them as MP3s. And I'll be reminded why I'd rather buy MP3s from eMusic or unlocked AACs from iTunes than DRM-afflicted tracks from other vendors.

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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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