iTunes is finally selling DRM-free music, but how will these changes affect us? We explain all

Finally, DRM-free (digital rights management-free) music via iTunes is with us. Customers can download tracks from EMI artists without any usage restrictions.

So, there'll be no limit on the types of devices or number of computers that purchased songs can be played on. Copy-free iTunes tracks have been a hot topic since Steve Jobs announced in February that DRM-free tracks were "clearly the best alternative for consumers" and something Apple "would embrace in a heartbeat".

Not everyone agreed, with notable objections from Warner Music chief executive Edgar Bronfman when we covered the story (

Nonetheless, EMI revealed that it was already working on DRM-free music and that early feedback on its trials had been very positive. In April this year, the DRM-free concept had turned from pipedream to reality.

The EMI songs will be added to the list of copy-protected songs that iTunes currently offers, which play only via iTunes or on iPod music players. They'll also cost more than their DRM-protected equivalents.

What's in it for Apple and EMI?

More money, for starters, as the DRM-free music costs almost one-third more. Plus 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).

Analysts say it's no coincidence that Apple is making this move, as consumer groups in Europe have criticised it for making iTunes tracks compatible only with the iPod.

How much will the files cost?

They'll cost 99p per song – 20p more than iTunes' current price of 79p for DRM-protected songs. But full albums will cost the same as the current iTunes price (usually £10).

What's the difference in quality between the files?

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

Can real people tell the difference?

Yes. But don't take our word for it. In a poll on PC Advisor's US sister site, 34 percent of respondents said they could hear "a real difference".

Will I be able to buy digital versions of Beatles songs?

No just yet, but former Beatle Paul McCartney has confirmed music from the classic UK act will soon be made available online.

McCartney said this week that a deal to make music from The Beatles available online through services such as iTunes is, "virtually settled".

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 device and Archos players, for instance, can play .AAC, but others, including those from Creative, SanDisk, Sony and Samsung, can't.

What software can play these EMI files?

The Yahoo Music Jukebox (in the US) can play them, as can Winamp Pro. Windows Media Player 11.0, as it ships, cannot.

What if my music player can't handle .aac files?

You can convert DRM-free .aac files to the format of your choice. To convert to MP3 in iTunes, go to Edit/Preferences and choose the Advanced tab (see picture, opposite). On the Importing tab, under Import Using, choose MP3 encoder. Then choose a bitrate below that under Setting. After that, head to your library, right-click a song and choose Convert Selection to MP3.

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

Apple says you'll be able to upgrade existing music by paying the cost difference, 20p per song.

Can I share 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. No matter how the music is priced, illegal file swappers will continue to download and distribute music they haven't 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 trusting customers.

Will other online stores follow EMI's example?

EMI is now offering its music DRM-free to all its digital distributors, not just to Apple, and the company says it's 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 is likely to stay in place for subscription music services such as Napster, eMusic and Yahoo Music Unlimited.

What about other record labels?

Gartenberg estimates that the other three big labels – Sony BMG, Warner Music and Universal Music – will follow suit within the year. And Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, says he expects to offer more than half of iTunes' five 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 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 be available in DRM-free format at the current price. Apple has yet to respond to our inquiries about the other videos in the iTunes store.

The full version of this article appears in the July 07 issue of PC Advisor, on sale now.