Why DRM Free Music is Important

Last week, Apple announced that they were finally dropping DRM (Digital Rights Management) from their incredibly popular iTunes Music Store.  While some tracks have been available with out the digital restrictions for over a year now, it was only a small percentage of the 10 million-ish tracks available from the store.

What is DRM

Lets have a quick review of exactly what DRM is.  As stated above, DRM stands for "Digital Rights Management" and it was a requirement of the record labels placed on any reseller of digital media.  The idea was, if people were going to purchase digital copies of songs, the record labels wanted the files restricted and in some cases traceable.  What kind of restrictions were placed on the tracks?  Within iTunes you could only have the file on up to five different computers, you could only have it on a limited number of iPod devices, and you could only play the track in iTunes.  You were also limited to the number of times you could burn to a disc for back up purposes.  Essentially, you didn’t really own the track you had purchased, you owned the right to play it on appropriate machines.

What Brought on This Change

While the Apple iTunes music store has been the leader in digital music distribution for several years, lately they’ve seen increased competition from Amazon and Microsoft’s Zune store.  Amazon was the first to get permission from the labels to offer all their tracks in a DRM-free capacity (they also sell mp3 files rather than Apple’s AAC encoded files).  Then not too long ago, the Zune store for Microsoft’s own portable music player went completely DRM-free.  This put Apple as a severe disadvantage.  However, Apple created the bed themselves by not offering something the labels were clamoring for: Variable Pricing.

So Apple had to concede variable pricing in order to get the record labels to give them DRM-free tracks to sell.

Why is This Important

When it comes to purchasing something, consumers like to feel they "own" the thing they bought.  They want to feel like they can do with that purchase what they want.  Digital Rights Management really hinders the consumer’s ability to do what they want with what they purchase.  Removing those restrictions allows the consumer to do a number of things.  First off, they can play the track on any device that supports AAC files (most popular players these days support this format).  This means that Apple’s store is now open to anyone that has a supported player (even Zunes).  Also, these non-restricted tracks can also be played in a player besides iTunes.  So, if you prefer Windows Media Player or something like MediaMonkey you can play these tracks using those programs.  Finally, if you use a different operating system (say Linux), you can also play these tracks on that system as well (you might have to install AAC support).  This means you can move the files around, copy them to other computers within your household, and put them on any device you want.  This is big news.

While this news hasn’t been overlooked, some people are taking a "so what?" approach to it because of Amazon’s store.  Granted, Amazon sells mp3 files which are the ultimate in player compatibility and in some cases they sell the same tracks for less than iTunes but Amazon doesn’t have things like "Celebrity Playlists" or "iTunes Sessions" and other specialty things that iTunes has to offer.  Also, the Amazon store just isn’t as popular with the average consumer.  People know what iTunes is and they know how to use it.  Giving the consumers the advantage on the most popular digital music store on the planet is a big deal.

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