The following text is copyright 2007 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.


DRM-less music? Let the consumer decide.


By Scott Bradner


The announcement of a pending announcement was buried among the April Fools Day fake stories on the techie web sites.  Music giant EMI (the world's third largest music company) and Apple were going to hold a joint press conference in London on April 2nd.  It turned out that the press conference was real but there still may be a joke in here for someone.


EMI announced that they were going to make their "entire digital repertoire" available on iTunes at a higher quality and without digital rights management (DRM) restrictions for 30% more than the price for the normal good quality music with DRM.  (see and   Both versions of the music will be available on iTunes starting in May.  Customers who already bought EMI music from iTunes will be able to upgrade to the higher quality & DRM-free version for 30 cents per song. Now the customers can decide if they want to pay extra to get rid of DRM.  This is not a completely clean test of this question because you get a better quality sound as well and it will not be possible to know if people are paying more for quality of flexibility, but it does give the customer the choice.


This announcement follows Jobs's published musings on music and DRM ( by less than two months.  In that posting, Jobs noted that most music played on iPods did not come from iTunes.  He said that as much as 97% came from CDs or other sources of DRM-free content and he challenged the music industry to license their content for publication on iTunes without DRM.  EMI has met the challenge.  Jobs said at the press conference that he expects that some other record companies will follow EMI's lead and that there will be 2.5 million songs available in the higher quality and DRM-free versions by the end of the year on iTunes.


We will not know for a while if there is a joke in this announcement and if there is who the joke is on. 


It's unlikely that the joke will be on EMI since it already sells millions of DRM-free digital CDs each year and since the illegal music sharing networks already have all of EMI's music ready for free download - adding some DRM-free iTunes digital songs to that mix will not make any significant difference.


It's unlikely that the joke will be on Apple since it's not the DRM in iTunes and iPods that makes them so good, it's the user interface and ease of use of iTunes and its integration with the iPod that makes it so good.  It is also the way that the DRM is mostly hidden from the user.  A DRM-free iTunes will not be worse and iPods have always been able to play DRM-free content.


I hope the joke will be on the companies who did not learn from the experiences of PC software vendors more than a decade ago or the experience of Intuit only a few years ago ("Mission accomplished?" who found out that DRM did not stop theft only really affected honest customers.  Most of those vendors dropped DRM quickly but the music industry was able to ignore those lessons and forge ahead with an implicit goal of frustrating their own customers.


It will be hard not to laugh if, a year or so from now, most music will be DRM free and the music companies are still selling more music then ever.  Any laughter will be bitter though because of how long it took and how much money was spent in not learning the lessons of history.


disclaimer:  Laughter is a topic of study at Harvard (maybe bitter laughter at the School of Government) but I did not consult the university on this column so the above exploration is my own.