Apple cuts iTunes' DRM-free price to 99 cents

Yet another sign that copy-restricted songs aren't long for this world.

Published October 17, 2007 7:09PM (EDT)

Late last month I reviewed Amazon's new MP3 music store and pronounced it better than iTunes. Amazon's chief advantage is its lack of digital rights management, or DRM, on the songs it sells. Whereas most of iTunes' tracks come gummed-up with a DRM-scheme called Fairplay, Amazon's songs work on any device made by any company (including Apple).

Plus Amazon, I pointed out, was cheaper. You could pick up DRM-free tracks there for 89 cents each. At iTunes, you paid 99 cents per track, and if you wanted DRM-free tracks (which Apple began selling earlier this year) you paid 30 cents extra, $1.29 per song.

But hey, look, the free market works! On Tuesday Apple announced that it is dropping the price of its DRM-free tracks to 99 cents-- the same price as its DRM-clogged tracks. In a a press release, Eddie Cue, Apple's vice president of iTunes, noted that Apple now has DRM-free tracks from one big record label -- EMI -- and many small labels, including Sub Pop, Nettwerk, Beggars Group, IODA, the Orchard and others. Amazon includes tracks from two major labels -- EMI and Universal -- as well as several indie labels, but Apple says that its non-DRM selection trumps Amazon's.

This is great news: Apple's move is a signal that it sees the DRM-free market as an important one, a point of competition between iTunes and its rivals. That retailers consider freedom a selling point is good for anyone who loves music.

When I pointed out that Amazon's unrestricted tracks were better than iTunes' restricted tracks -- because no one wants to be locked in to Apple devices forever -- Apple fanboys crawled out of the woodwork to tell me that nobody cared about DRM on iTunes anyway.

Sure, they said, Apple's Fairplay lets you play your songs only on iTunes, iPods and iPhones -- but if you want to play them on non-Apple devices, you can always burn your purchases to CD, then rip them again as MP3s.

Nevermind that this process is laborious -- imagine doing it for a library of thousands of songs -- and that it ruins your music (burning decompresses your songs, and ripping them recompresses them, a process that loses digital music information). Because breaking out of the iTunes DRM jail is technically possible, lock-in simply "doesn't exist," argued MacDailyNews, a bastion of naive pro-Apple pounding.

Fortunately Apple doesn't see it that way. The company seems to realize that DRM does it no good in the long run.

People are going to choose to buy iPods for the utility of the devices alone, not because we have a library of iTunes songs that can only be played on iPods. Now that Apple faces competition from a big-name retailer, and now that music labels are beginning to realize that it's not in their interest to keep customers locked in to Apple devices (the last thing the labels want is to see Steve Jobs controlling more music), DRM looks to be on the slow road to extinction. At least, I hope.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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