PC World FAQ: iTunes and DRM-free music

Editor’s Note: The following story is reprinted from PC World. For more Mac coverage, visit PC World’s Mac page.

Apple and EMI Monday announced that you’ll soon be able to buy higher-quality, DRM-free digital music from EMI artists through the iTunes Store. These songs will be added to the list of copy-protected songs that iTunes currently offers, which play only via iTunes or on iPods. The EMI files also will cost more than DRM-protected songs. We had questions about the plans, and you probably do also. Here are ours—with answers.

Why are Apple and EMI doing this? What's in it for them?

More money, for starters, as the DRM-free music costs almost one-third more. Also, EMI says it sees the deal as a strategic move to be a big player in the rapidly expanding digital marketplace. (The record company could use the boost to its business, given recent profit troubles).

For Apple’ part, Steve Jobs has previously voiced his opposition to DRM, and analysts say there is no coincidence that Apple is making this move as consumer groups in Europe have criticized Apple for making music purchased on iTunes compatible only with Apple's own iPod music player.

When will these music files become available for purchase?

In May. We’re trying to pin down a specific date.

How much will the files cost?

They’ll cost $1.29 per song—30 cents more than iTunes’ current price of 99 cents for DRM-protected songs. But full albums will cost the same as the current iTunes price ($9.99 for most albums).

What’s the difference in quality between current iTunes songs and the new files?

iTunes songs are currently sold as 128-kilobits-per-second music in .aac format. The new, DRM-free music will be 256 kbps, which means less compression and higher audio quality.

Can real people tell the difference between 128 kbps and 256 kpbs?

Yep. But don’t take our word for it. PC World Senior Editor Eric Dahl just blogged about this issue and placed some music ripped at both bit rates in his blog. Try out these music files yourself and vote in the PCW poll.

What about the Beatles catalog? Will I be able to buy digital versions of Beatles songs?

Sorry, though the Beatles are somewhat of the Holy Grail, no digital Beatles music is available just yet. The Beatles’ Apple Corporation (different from Apple) has to consent to releasing Beatles music in digital format, and it hasn’t yet done so. “We are working on that,” says Eric Nicoli, chief executive officer of EMI.

Will the EMI songs play only on iPods?

No. You can listen to them on any player that can handle .aac music files. Microsoft’s Zune player and Sonos players, for instance, can also hand .aac, but other players, including those from Creative, SanDisk, MobiBlu, and iRiver, for example, can’t.

What software can play these EMI files?

The Yahoo Music Jukebox can play them, as can Winamp Pro (but not the free basic player). Windows Media Player 11, as it ships, cannot.

I’m a Windows user. What if my music player or preferred software can’t handle .aac files?

iTunes Windows
You can convert non-DRM protected .aac files to the format of your choice. To convert to .mp3 in iTunes, go to Edit/Preferences and choose the Advanced tab, as shown in the screenshot to the right. On the Importing tab, under Import Using, choose MP3 encoder, and choose a bit rate below that under Setting. After that, head to your library, right-click a song, and choose Convert Selection to MP3. We also like imToo’s conversion software.

What about my current iTunes music? Can I upgrade 128-kbps songs to the higher quality level?

Apple says you’ll be able to upgrade existing music by paying the cost difference, 30 cents per song.

Can I share the new DRM-free music?

The technology won’t stop you, but the same copyright laws that make sharing music illegal still apply.

Will this new scheme discourage illegal file sharing?

No, according to experts—including EMI’s Nicoli. Why? Because currently no matter how the music is priced, illegal file swappers will continue to download and distribute music they have not paid for, according to Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for Jupiter Research. Nicoli says that removing DRM from EMI music tracks is about trust, adding that he trusts his customers.

Will other online stores follow EMI’s example?

EMI is now offering its music DRM-free to all of its digital distributors, not just to Apple, and the company says it is in discussions with Microsoft (for the Zune store) and others. But according to EMI, it’s up to those distributors to decide whether, when, and for what price they’ll offer EMI’s music DRM-free. DRM will likely stay in place for subscription music services such as Napster, Rhapsody, and Yahoo Music Unlimited, according to Gartenberg.

What about other record labels?

Gartenberg estimates that the other three big labels—Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group—will follow suit within the year. And Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, says he expects to offer more than half of iTunes’ 5 million songs DRM-free by the end of the year.

I hear EMI is up for sale. What happens to this deal if EMI gets bought?

EMI has said it would entertain serious buyout offers. And Warner, which has previously made a bid for the company, has come out against DRM-free music. But EMI wouldn’t comment today on what might happen to the DRM-free music if the company is bought.

What, if anything, does this mean for video?

EMI music videos will also be available in DRM-free format at the current price. Apple hasn’t yet responded to our inquiries about the other videos in the iTunes store.

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