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ITunes songs unlocked--at a cost

Times Staff Writers

Apple Inc. and EMI Group want digital music fans to pay more money for more freedom.

EMI, the world’s fourth-largest record label, said Monday that it had agreed to sell its 150,000-song catalog through Apple’s iTunes store without the anti-piracy software that limits which devices can play digital music. EMI acts include Coldplay and the Rolling Stones -- only the Beatles were excluded from the deal.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 02, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Music sales: An April 2 article in Section A and an April 3 article in Business said that EMI Group was the world’s fourth-largest record label. EMI ranks third in global sales.

The companies plan to charge $1.29 -- 30 cents more than other iTunes songs -- for tracks with better sound quality and none of the digital locks designed to prevent theft. They are banking on music aficionados to recognize the difference.

“You are looking at a group of people who care about audio quality,” Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said. “That’s why EMI and Apple are saying, ‘Pay 30 cents more for better music rather than pay 30 cents more for music without the copyright protection.’ ”

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Eliminating the so-called digital rights management, or DRM, software isn’t a free pass to swap copyrighted songs through illicit file-sharing networks such as EDonkey or LimeWire -- that’s still illegal. Instead, the move puts songs purchased through online stores such as iTunes on the same footing as CDs, which don’t include anti-piracy features.

“We’ve always argued that the best way to combat illegal traffic is to make legal content available at decent value and conveniently,” EMI Chief Executive Eric Nicoli said. “And we take the view that we have to trust consumers.”

The London-based company is the first major record label to drop the copying protections. Analysts and Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs predicted that other labels would follow.

EMI said the existing restrictions, which also limit the number of digital copies that can be made of a song, have repelled the very people who should be the most avid online music buyers.

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Music lovers who buy music online have long complained about the copying restrictions, which inadvertently reward people who download music illegally because they can play music on many devices and make unlimited copies.

“The very people who we thought should be leading the charge of digital music were the same people saying it doesn’t work for us,” said Barney Wragg, head of digital for EMI Music.

If UC Berkeley student Daniel Brainich is typical, the music industry might have a hard road ahead. The 24-year-old senior in Middle Eastern studies said he downloads music for free to his computer and plays it on his stereo, but he’ll buy record albums of bands he likes for the sound quality.

He wasn’t impressed by EMI’s announcement. “It’s still not free,” he said.

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But fellow student Amy Miescke, a freshman studying economics, said she was intrigued.

“I like knowing you can share something legally,” she said.

Nicoli was pressed to answer whether stripping copying protection from the label’s songs would leave it vulnerable to piracy.

“The fact that some will continue to disappoint us and choose to steal the music is inevitable,” he said. “So, this doesn’t in any way diminish our commitment to fighting piracy in all its forms.”

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Jobs joined EMI in London for the announcement, which he proclaimed “the next big step forward in the digital music revolution.”

Jobs said that Apple would approach other major and independent labels to strike similar deals, and predicted that by the end of the year half the iTunes catalog of 5 million songs would be free of copying restrictions, which the labels have insisted on to protect against piracy.

The three biggest record labels -- Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group -- declined to comment.

“Now it’s a matter of time,” said David Pakman, chief executive of EMusic, an online music service. “Other major labels have no choice. They don’t want to sacrifice sales.”

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Online music retailers that compete against Apple, such as RealNetworks’ Rhapsody service, said they would be happy to sell music in a format that could be played on the market-dominating iPod.

“This moves us closer than ever to the day when consumers will be able to buy their favorite music via Rhapsody and enjoy it on their iPod or any other music-playing device,” RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser said.

Yahoo Music, which sold a song by EMI artist Norah Jones without copy protections in November, has been championing such a move for more than a year.

“It’s no secret we would love to be able to sell our tracks in a DRM-free format,” said Ian Rogers, general manager of Yahoo Music.

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Jobs said he didn’t anticipate that the television networks or movie studios would similarly remove copy protection from their online video.

“Video’s pretty different than music because the video industry does not distribute 90% of its content DRM-free -- never have,” said Jobs, Walt Disney Co.'s largest shareholder. “So I think they’re in a pretty different situation.”

The announcement came the same day the European Commission formally charged Apple and major record companies with restricting music sales by letting customers buy music only from their country’s specific iTunes store. A British consumer group has complained that music fans in its country pay more for iTunes songs than in other European countries. Apple said it was working with the EU to resolve the matter.

michelle.quinn@latimes.com

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

Quinn reported from Berkeley and Chmielewski from Los Angeles.


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