Apple, EMI offer higher-quality DRM free downloads

Apple and EMI announced at an event on Monday that EMI’s entire music and video catalog will be available in May without any digital rights management (DRM) protection. The two companies will also offer higher quality sound files of songs, but the songs will come at a higher price.

“In all of research, consumers tell us overwhelmingly that they would be willing to pay a higher price for a digital music file that they could use on any player,” said Eric Nicoli, CEO of EMI Group. “It’s clear to us that interoperability is important to music buyers and is a key to unlocking and energizing the digital business.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said the high-quality songs will be encoded at 256kbps AAC instead of 128kbps AAC used for the standard songs. The new songs will carry a higher price of $1.29 — $0.30 higher than the stand $0.99 of the current songs.

“This is a landmark event and is part of a major shift that will take place this year resulting in consumers being able to purchase music from any digital music store and play it on any digital music player,” said Jobs.

Users will not be forced to pay the higher prices if they don’t want to. Jobs said the higher-quality DRM-free songs will be an addition to the store, not a replacement for what is already being offered. Users can still choose to purchase DRM-encoded tracks for $0.99.

Albums with high-quality audio will remain at the same price as the current albums. Users that already own EMI tracks purchased from iTunes can upgrade their entire library for $0.30 a song, if they wish.

Jobs said that iTunes would let users know if there is a song available at the higher-quality encoding automatically, so people don’t need to think about it on an individual song basis.

EMI is just the first, according to Jobs. He said Apple expects well over half of the songs on the iTunes Store to be DRM-free by the end of the calendar year.

“EMI has taken the first bold step in the music industry and starting today Apple will reach out to all the other major and independent labels to give them the same opportunity,” said Jobs.

When Jobs proposed removing DRM from songs in an open letter earlier this year, many people thought that Apple had too much to lose. As the number one maker of digital music players and having the number one online store, removing DRM would mean that people could purchase music from iTunes and play it on any device.

“Hopefully, by our actions here today and over the coming months they will conclude that we are continuing to do exactly what has earned us these number one positions — doing the right thing for the customer,” said Jobs. “The right thing for the customer going forward is to tear down the walls that preclude interoperability by going DRM free. That starts here today.”

Update: Added more information from the event.

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