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Sony BMG Dropping MP3 DRM?

drm downIt falls short of formal collusion but the world’s big four music labels tend to move in a herd.  Where one tentatively steps, the others follow if the ground proves solid.  Where two go, the rest stampede.  In the digital rights management (DRM) debate, EMI was the first to choose a new path.   Last week, Warner Music was the third to withdraw from a staunch DRM Stance.  Now, Business Week is reporting Sony BMG is on the verge of dropping the copyright encryption programs too.

According to the Business Week report, which sites the famously vague “sources familiar with the matter,” Sony BMG will sell digital music free of burdensome copyright encryption at some point during the first quarter of this year.  The expectation is the DRM-Free music may even appear as early as February.  That would allow Sony BMG to participate in a massive music give-away promotion Pepsi is running for the Super Bowl.

A Billboard report a few weeks ago suggested similar developments from Sony BMG.

If Billboard and Business Week’s sources prove accurate, there’s no guarantee Sony BMG will apply the changed stance to their entire catalog.  Instead, they may follow a more cautious approach and limit DRM-Free music to a select grouping of songs.   Universal did something similar when they first rolled out DRM-Free titles in August. They called it an “experiment.”

One thing is likely: when (and it’s “when” not “if”) Sony BMG drops the restrictions, they’ll likely make the unencrypted music available at Amazon’s MP3 store but not necessarily at Apple’s iTunes. The music industry has for months expressed frustration at Apple’s refusal to allow them greater pricing flexibility (Apple insists song prices remain fixes at the iTunes store). 

The labels have also, at times, expressed frustration at the power Apple has amassed as a result of the iPod’s (and iTunes) success.  The irony there is that’s a problem of the label’s own creation.  As previously reported here on Metue: under the restricted DRM encrypted approach forced by the industry, Apple was the only company able to sell songs playable on the iPod.  No other retailer had access to the same encryption (and with it, the ability to sell music playable for iPod owners).  These other stores, instead, sold Window Media encrypted songs playable on other devices.  With the iPod becoming such a dominating a success, the other stores had no chance. Many of these music stores including Virgin Digital and Sony Connect failed.

Bypassing iTunes seems to be the music industry’s way of trying to regrasp the reins of what was becoming a runaway horse.

If Sony BMG does embrace a DRM-Free approach but bypasses iTunes it will make for an interesting side note in the already impressive legacy of the iPod.  Under those circumstances, the ubiquitous MP3 player will not only be credited with bringing digital music to the masses, but its success, and the power that came with it,  will have also be responsible for shocking the music industry into adjusting their antiquated thinking. The iPod will have taken the industry into the digital age. (U.S. Album sales for 2007 fell nearly 10 percent.  Digital sales grew 45 percent to account for nearly 10 percent of all music sold (Nielsen Soundscan)).  And it will also have forced an entrenched legacy business to listen to their customers and drop cumbersome DRM.

Few consumer technologies can claim responsibility for being so disruptive and so transformative.  Even though one of many MP3 players to grace store shelves, the iPod could arguably wear the crown of the most disruptive and industry shaping piece of electronics since the cell phone and the personal computer came before it.


[The ongoing debate about Digital Rights Management and its influence on the music industry has been well documented.  Background and detail can be found in the below Related Articles.  The reports titled “The Paradox of DRM Encrypted Music” and “Can EMI Save the Music Business from Itself,” in particular, provide substantial detail]

Related Articles
Warner Music Drops DRM
Amazon Launches DRM-Free MP3 Store
The Paradoxes of DRM Encrypted Music
Can EMI Save the Music Business from Itself
Universal Experiments with DRM-Free Sales
Sony and Virgin Shut their Music Stores: DRM and the Shrinking list of sellers
Universal Walks from Long-Term iTunes Partnership
Variable Pricing MP3’s from Passalong
Steve Jobs Calls for DRM-Free Music (Essay Reprint)
Big 4 Back imeem for Streaming


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