Sony, Yahoo Offer DRM-Free Downloadable Song

Sony BMG and Yahoo are teaming up to provide online music downloads in the popular, flexible MP3 format without the usual digital rights management (DRM) controls, but for about twice the price of a typical title download.

The Yahoo Music release is limited to a single song from Jessica Simpson that is personalized with hundreds of names for different listeners, and was reportedly provided DRM-free for that reason. Still, the release represents a first with a major music label delivering a popular artist’s work in MP3, the file-trading format that continues to draw the wrath of recording companies.

“I really think this is another crack in the wall of DRM denial that the major recording labels have been putting up,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Fred von Lohmann told TechNewsWorld.

MP3 Move

The Sony BMG/Yahoo strategy will test whether consumers will be willing to pay extra for the MP3 format, which is more universal than the proprietary formats used by Apple’s iTunes and other services. It also stirs the debate over consumer willingness to put up with DRM restrictions on their downloads.

The Simpson song, “A Public Affair,” was produced by Sony BMG and is available on Yahoo Music for US$1.99, and it includes a personalization feature for 500 names.

Rather than the usual restricted file users get from other services, the Yahoo Music song is provided in MP3 format, which can be stored, transferred to other computers, burned to disc and played on nearly all digital players, including iPods.

Consumers are increasingly looking to get their online music legitimately, but many remain frustrated by the usual limitations proprietary file formats place on copying and sharing.

“Really, there is only one format, and that is MP3,” von Lohmann said. “Any other format, people don’t want.”

All About Apple

Although the Yahoo Music MP3 is only a special, personalized version of a standard music download, it highlights how online music providers and the recording companies are starting to resist Apple’s iPod and iTunes dominance, according to von Lohmann.

“It shows that relying on DRM formats is just helping Apple and hurting everyone else,” he said. “It’s limiting it to one company: Apple.”

The success of eMusic, an independent music download site that offers MP3s from independent music producers, is also attracting consumers and scaring the labels, von Lohmann added.

“eMusic is really making some incredible strides,” he said, referring to a growing catalog and user base.

Consumers Don’t Care

Despite some vocal opposition, DRM is not a concern for most consumers, and Apple’s success is evidence that as long as it does not directly interfere with listening to or legitimately transferring downloaded tunes, DRM will be accepted, JupiterResearch Vice President Michael Gartenberg told TechNewsWorld.

“Consumers don’t care, and Apple [has] demonstrated this more than a billion times with iTunes,” he said. “At the end of the day, consumers just don’t care about this.”

Gartenberg downplayed rumors that the music labels are increasingly looking to MP3, and called the Jessica Simpson song a “one-off” that is unlikely to be replicated anytime soon.

iPod Time Bomb?

Sony’s release of the Simpson song in MP3 format is in stark contrast to the company’s effort last year to lock down music CD content. That DRM effort was a disaster, as it damaged consumer devices that tried to play the CDs, prompted a host of lawsuits and ensured that none of the other labels carried through on plans to distribute DRM-protected CDs of their own this year.

While there certainly has not been a similar outcry against Apple’s iPod and iTunes DRM, that may only be because not enough time has passed, von Lohmann claimed.

“I think Apple’s DRM is really a time bomb for consumers who purchased those files,” he said, explaining that many users may be surprised to discover later that computer or burn limits do not allow them to move iTunes music about indefinitely.

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