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Applevine Rumors: Sony DRM Free Music?

sony drmIn 2006 and 2007, Apple was one of the torch-bearers in the movement to push record labels to license downloadable copies of their music without digital rights management encryption (DRM) but when the fruits of that effort were eventually harvested, when the labels decided to go DRM-Free, the rewards largely passed Apple by. 

At the time, iTunes was already the leading distributor of digital music. There wasn’t a competitor even close.  The record labels, in an effort to level the field and try to shift the balance of distribution power to a less monopolistic scenario,  allocated DRM-Free licenses only to Apple’s rivals; stores like Amazon and Walmart.   It’s a strategy they’ve yet to reconsider.

To date,  EMI remains the only representative of the Big 4 (the world’s four largest record companies) that allows Apple to sell DRM-Free tracks.  Rumor has it, however, that may soon start to change.

Apple-centric website 9to5Mac reported this weekend that Sony BMG (which is now wholly owned by Sony) may be preparing to offer a DRM-free license to iTunes sometime in the near future.  If true,  the news would begin to make good on a pledge Steve Jobs made in May 2007 when he said he expected more than half the songs in iTunes to be available in iTunes Plus, Apple’s DRM-Free offering, later that year.

The news sounds promising but readers should also beware.  The original posting begins with the ominous line, “let’s just say we have a hunch on this one.”  No sources, even anonymous ones, are provided.  Additionally, the timeline for delivery is reported as being any time in a range of weeks or months ahead.   With such limited information, the report of soon to be announced DRM-Free license for iTunes amounts to little more than another rumor in an already crowded sea of Apple gossip.    It’s another whisper on the Applevine. 

Could it turn out to be true? Absolutely.  Is it it likely? With such a wide time window, the possibility increases,  but I still wouldn’t expect anything soon. 

Why not? …
To date, the music labels have set themselves on a path to try and create a more competitive digital marketplace.   Part of the strategy behind that appears to be an effort to keep iTunes in a DRM box while competitors are empowered with a broader selection of portable DRM-Free tunes.  Even though it’s questionable whether its working   (iTunes is still way ahead in the U.S. market)Amazon MP3 has been growing, and other label backed services like MySpace music are moving forward too.  A deviation now would be a surprise.

Adding to timing concerns – even if a strategy shift is coming – just a month ago, on October 1st,  Sony announced the completion of their agreement to buyout Bertelsmann’s share of the Sony BMG music joint venture.  The music company, the world’s second largest, is now in the process of being rebranded Sony Music Entertainment Inc. (SMEI) and incorporated into Sony Corp. of America.   A change in DRM-policy before even the re-branding of the company is complete? That seems unlikely.

So DRM-Free Sony music at iTunes? Don’t bet on it yet.

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