Customers of Apple Inc.'s iTunes store will soon be able to play downloaded songs by the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones and other top-selling artists free of the copying restrictions once imposed by their label.
EMI Group, the world's fourth-largest record label, and Apple, the biggest seller of digital music and players, announced a landmark deal yesterday that would remove copying protections from songs starting in May. The decision is likely to pressure other major recording companies to follow suit.
The agreement covers nearly all of EMI's catalog, which also includes the likes of Coldplay, Gorillaz and Janet Jackson.
There's at least one notable exception: the Beatles. The surviving band members and their estates have yet to permit online sales of their songs.
Songs without anti-piracy protection will cost $1.29, compared with the usual iTunes price of 99 cents, and feature higher sound quality, the companies said. People who previously bought EMI songs through iTunes can upgrade them for 30 cents apiece.
London-based EMI became the first of the four major record labels to heed Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs' call to sell songs free of the software designed to protect music against theft. Jobs has maintained that copying protections are ineffective in stemming piracy and only create hassles for consumers.
"EMI, which has historically been one of the more experimentation-friendly major labels, realized that that's the future," said Aram Sinnreich, a senior analyst with Radar Research.
Consumers have long chafed at the restrictions placed on music purchased through iTunes and other online music stores. Record labels have insisted on attaching software "locks" to prevent unauthorized copying.
But the software Apple uses to achieve this is proprietary, and songs bought through the online store won't work with competing services or devices. That practice of linking iTunes with the iPod has drawn the scrutiny of European regulators, who say it limits buyer choice.
"We think our customers are going to love this," Jobs said, adding that he expected to offer more than half of the songs in the iTunes library free of copying protection by the end of the year.
Some technologists and consumer advocates have argued that lifting the restrictions would give a boost to online music, which generates about 15 percent of U.S. music sales.
Jobs acknowledged consumers' frustration in "Thoughts on Music," a manifesto he published on Apple's Web site in February. He pointed out that the music companies insist on anti-piracy measures for the songs sold online even though the vast majority of the music they sell is on CDs, which lack any copy protection.
"If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players," Jobs wrote. "This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies." Jobs said anti-piracy protections restricted customers' ability to do what they want with the music they bought but didn't stop determined pirates from illegally swapping songs.
Dawn C. Chmielewski and Michelle Quinn write for the Los Angeles Times.