Bomb Garden

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Music, Now With Less DRM

Remember DRM? It's OK if you forgot -- the record industry is screwing consumers in so many ways, it's tough to remember them all. Here's a recap: When you buy digital copies on, like, iTunes, they're protected so that you can't easily share them with your 100 million closest friends. The constraints also restrict you from easily sharing them with yourself across platforms. That's DRM (Digital Rights Management). Since the dawn of digital downloads, it's the one thing all major labels have required.

Then, in April, industry giant EMI inked a deal with iTunes and Microsoft to offer the label's music DRM-free. There was a premium ($1.30 as opposed to $.99), but a lot of people (including myself) thought this was the push into the void. We were right, kinda.

Last week Universal -- the biggest record company in the world by market share -- decided to start testing the waters. Until the end of the year, Universal will offer DRM-free music at no extra charge (costing between $.79 and $.99). This is momentous, for the obvious reasons, but also because Universal is going to be offering the DRM-free music on most major services except Apple's iTunes.

Apple is the world's biggest seller of digital downloads. Excluding them while allowing all others has two probable motivations. 1) Universal wants to test it with less sucessful retailers so that, if the DRM plan backfires, it will have only offered easily sharable music to millions of people, rather than to a billion of them. 2) In this incredibly contentious industry-versus-end-user standoff, Universal wants to punish Apple for siding with consumers. Giving cheaper DRM-free tracks to iTunes' competitors allows them to gain market share, effectively saying, "Apple charges extra for DRM-free music, but we don't."

It's all so bitchy. I love it.

And what's not to love? The childishness and contentiousness are great, of course, but from a practical, users'-rights perspective, we now have two of the four major labels at least play-testing a world without DRM (both Universal and EMI are "Watermarking" the files, but that's another controversy altogether). Futurists and consumer advocates said it was inevitable. Now it's happening.