This could be something. EMI and Apple’s press conference later today is trailered with announcing an “exciting new digital offering.” This could be the long-awaited sale of Beatles tracks on iTunes, but there’s speculation of a DRM announcement. Digital Rights Management is the technology that copy-protects individual songs, meaning that tracks bought on iTunes can only be played on iPods, and in many countries it’s actually illegal to circumvent. MP3 players have to support DRM in order to play songs downloaded from online stores like Virgin, something a friend of mine ran into when her generic 512mb player refused to recognise any of her legally purchased music.
DRM is intended to protect music from illegal copying, and I have some sympathy with the aims, but in practice it’s irritating as hell and actually encourages people to circumvent the system by obtaining music illegally. EMI have expressed interest in releasing DRM-free music, and today’s announcement might be a large-scale release on these lines, especially given Apple’s recent comments that they would sell DRM-free music ‘in a heartbeat’.
If this happens it’ll be interesting to see the results. Experiments indicate people are more willing to buy DRM-free music, but there’s always the worry that sales will plummet as piracy would be simple. This seems unlikely, however. I think most people realise it’s fair to pay for music you like, especially when it’s only 79p and not the £4 of an HMV single. I think people have a decency default, and there’s room for a gentleman’s agreement of sorts: the record labels / artists say “you can do what you like with our music, but in return we expect you to be fair.” Yes, plenty of people will ignore this, but if properly implemented it would no longer be socially acceptable. I think most decent people frown at the idea of watching an illegal DVD of a newly-released movie – however much people whine about cinema prices, there’s no excuse for that – and it’d be great to get music to the same level.
The next step, presumably, would be some kind of license allowing people to share music in a limited fashion. I don’t see the problem in sending a new single to a friend with similar tastes, but it’s clearly unreasonable to share it with the entire office, or for my friend to in turn pass it on.