DRM-Free Spotlight Shifts Towards Microsoft, Zune

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One week after EMI announced a DRM-free deal with Apple, the spotlight is now shifting towards Microsoft.

Starting in May, Apple will position DRM-free tracks from EMI as a higher-fidelity, higher-priced option, a timetable that was jointly disclosed early last week. Once that exclusivity window closes, other companies will undoubtedly join in, including Microsoft. The tracks will appear within the Zune Marketplace, the software and ecommerce companion to the recently-released Zune portable media player.

In a Friday discussion, a Microsoft representative refused to offer a definitive schedule, though the company is clearly considering its DRM-free options. “While we cannot offer a timetable … consumers have indicated this is important to them so Zune has been working with a variety of partners to head in this direction,” the representative told Digital Music News.

This move by Microsoft is not surprising, as they have been looking to compete with Apple in the digital music market for quite some time. The Zune player was released in late 2006, but has struggled to gain market share against the iPod. By offering DRM-free tracks, Microsoft is hoping to attract consumers who are looking for more freedom with their music purchases.

Meanwhile, digital music stores and player manufacturers are anticipating greater changes ahead. That could include a copycat move from another major label, though opinions are mixed on whether rivals like Universal Music Group are eager to shed protections so quickly. Sources continue to point to a rather icy stance from the remaining majors, though the early EMI sales story will be an important – and closely-watched – variable.

And if a move is made, there is no guarantee that rival majors will be interested in duplicating the tiered structure that EMI crafted. That rather complicated approach, which positions DRM-free catalog as a premium, higher-priced option alongside existing, protected songs, helped to lessen the thud of the announcement somewhat. The reception included a fair degree of skepticism, including criticism for Steve Jobs for altering a largely uniform pricing and product approach towards music within the iTunes Store.

“There is the sense that the announcement didn’t go over as well as they would have liked,” one insider close to the label explained to Digital Music News last week.

Elsewhere, RealNetworks chairman and chief executive Rob Glaser openly embraced the EMI shift, though a company representative was also unable to offer Digital Music News a firm timetable.

The move towards DRM-free tracks is a significant one for the music industry. For years, labels have relied on digital rights management (DRM) to protect their content from piracy. However, many consumers have grown frustrated with the restrictions that DRM places on their music. By offering DRM-free tracks, labels are hoping to entice consumers to purchase more music, while also addressing concerns about the limitations of DRM.

The success of DRM-free tracks remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it represents a significant shift in the music industry. As more labels and players begin to offer DRM-free options, it is likely that consumers will have more freedom with their music purchases. For now, the focus remains on Microsoft and the Zune Marketplace, as the company prepares to offer DRM-free tracks in the coming months.