The digital rights movement

Earlier in the spring Fast Forward wrote about the loosening of digital rights management (DRM) restrictions on music files. In theory DRM software is what prevents hackers and pirates from trading illegal copies of music. In practice it’s why you need to buy an iPod if you want to carry around the songs you download from iTunes. However back in April Apple was preparing to release special DRM-free songs from EMI at a price premium as CEO Steve Jobs called for an end to DRM software on all music. The digital music field however was not static for although iTunes had a clear lock on music sales the gradual embracing of non-DRM music by the major labels allowed eMusic.com the largest purveyor of DRM-free songs to shoot up and become the second-largest player in the online music business.

However there’s a big gap between one and two and sensing an opening several new players have entered the digital music market this fall with DRM-free offerings. In France where Apple is facing multiple legal challenges to both the iPod and iPhone on the grounds that the devices fail consumer interoperability standards Vivendi owners of Universal Music began a short-term “experiment” selling DRM-free music to its French subscribers. Shortly afterwards and closer to home American retail giant Wal-Mart announced it would offer DRM-free music too beginning with Universal releases. Wal-Mart however is not known for having a strong online music presence so its announcement was less well received than Amazon.com’s declaration that it would make DRM-free downloads available to customers who ordered music from its site. The site was seen as having the potential to rival iTunes with one catch — Sony and Warner refused to make their music available through Amazon so for the moment Apple has the more complete musical roster. Not to be outdone RealNetwork MTV and Verizon signed a new partnership to deliver digital music while TiVo and Rhapsody also made similar deals.

It seems the consumerist dream of being able to purchase a song online once and then being able to play it on any device or mp3 player legally and conveniently is closer than ever.