Dealing with digital rights

In April 2007, Apple and England’s EMI record label held a joint press conference to announce that individual tracks from EMI would be available at the iTunes Store in two forms—the current 99-cent copy-protected form and a new $1.29 unprotected form, to be known as iTunes Plus.

Up to this point, the prevailing wisdom had been that downloadable music must be protected in such a way that it could not be easily copied or shared, thus preventing piracy. Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) technology was designed to do just that. You could play music purchased from the iTunes Store on as many as five authorized computers, as well as on a limitless number of iPods; you could burn the same playlist of protected songs as many as seven times; and you could burn the protected tracks to CD (at which point they were no longer protected). But if you tried to copy the digital files for a friend or post them to a peer-to-peer site, anyone downloading the tracks would be unable to play them. (Other music services such as Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, and Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace offer their own forms of DRM, which are more restrictive than FairPlay.)

Apple seemingly understood that the DRM status quo was flawed. After all, the same music in the form of audio CDs was unprotected. If someone wanted to steal music and share it with the world, it was easy enough to buy the CD, rip it, and distribute its tracks via peer-to-peer software. Why single out downloadable music for protection?

Alone among the major record labels, EMI was willing to take a chance and offer its catalog to Apple (and some other online services) in an unprotected form. And Apple was willing not only to strip the protection from the tracks, but also to offer them at higher bit rates—256-Kbps AAC versus the protected versions’ 128 Kbps. EMI has offered a similar deal to Amazon.com, which now sells unprotected 256-Kbps MP3 files for an average price of 99 cents per track (the most popular DRM-free MP3 albums go for $8.99). While EMI is the only major label to do this, vast numbers of independent labels have been offering their music without protection on services such as eMusic and Audio Lunchbox, and now on Amazon. In an apparent response to Amazon’s music service, Apple quickly reduced the price of its iTunes Plus tracks to the standard 99 cents per track. It also began offering music from some independent labels in iTunes Plus form.

So if you prefer your music unprotected, what options do you have? Let’s take a look.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store is many Mac users’ first stop for music because it’s integrated beautifully into iTunes. Although iTunes Plus albums and tracks are marked as such on artist and album pages, you can find them in an easier way. Select the iTunes Store entry in iTunes’ Source list and, in the Quick Links section of the store’s interface, click on iTunes Plus. Here you’ll find top albums and songs available in the iTunes Plus format, as well as a Genres pop-up menu that lets you view just pop or classical albums, for example (see “iTunes Plus”).

If you’ve purchased FairPlay tracks from the iTunes Store that are now available in the iTunes Plus format, the Upgrade My Library entry in the upper right corner of the iTunes window will let you know which songs you can update and how much the total cost will be (Apple charges 30 cents for each song, 60 cents for each music video, and one-third the current album price for upgrading an entire album). Click on the See Details button, and you’re taken to an Upgrade My Library screen where you can upgrade your tracks. Regrettably, Apple doesn’t give you the option to upgrade individual songs in your iTunes library. You must upgrade all the tracks that are now available in the iTunes Plus format.

Before Apple followed Amazon’s lead and reduced the price of its unprotected tracks, you could purchase either the 128-Kbps protected track or the 256-Kbps iTunes Plus track. Now that you can have the higher-quality unprotected track for the same price as the protected version, you can no longer purchase the smaller protected tracks. When an iTunes Plus track or album is available, that’s the version you get.

It’s worth noting that although iTunes Plus tracks are unprotected—meaning that you can share them with your friends or, conceivably, across the Internet—they’re marked with identifying information. The e-mail address associated with your Apple ID is embedded in these files—so unless you want to risk the wrath of the music industry’s legal beagles, you’ll want to keep these files to yourself.

Other sources

iTunes is a late arrival to the party in terms of online music stores offering unprotected music. As mentioned earlier, services such as eMusic and Audio Lunchbox have each been selling unprotected MP3 files (currently encoded at 192 Kbps) from their very inception. Amazon began selling unprotected MP3 files in late September 2007 and, unlike online merchants such as Wal-Mart and gBox, Amazon embraces the Mac platform instead of making its service compatible only with Windows PCs.

The Concert Vault site offers DRM-free MP3 concert recordings for $10 per show (see “Concert Vault”). These tend to be older shows from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Internet Archive also has live DRM-free concert recordings in its Live Music Archive section. These recordings are free and usually available in a variety of encoding formats including FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and different flavors of MP3. The Largehearted Boy blog includes the A to Z Guide To Online Music Downloads, which links you to multiple sources of free, unprotected music files.

[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPhone Pocket Guide, second edition ; and The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, third edition (both from Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

iTunes Plus: The iTunes Plus page is your gateway to Apple’s higher-quality, DRM-free audio tracks and music videos.Concert Vault: If you’re looking for old concert recordings, you can stream or purchase them from Concert Vault.

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