UMG to sell songs sans DRM online

Move represents a direct jab at Apple's iTunes

Universal Music Group has now become the second major label to start selling its songs online without copy protection, but Apple isn’t invited to the party.

In a direct jab at Apple and its iTunes Store, with which it has sparred several times recently, UMG is making DRM-free downloads available to many of iTunes’ competitors, including, RealNetworks’ Rhapsody and Best Buy, as well as artists’ websites. The music services will all offer tracks from thousands of albums by Universal artists such as Sting, 50 Cent and Stevie Wonder without digital rights management technology, or DRM, for a limited time as part of what the diskery is calling a “test.”

ITunes, however, will not be a part of it.

EMI started selling non-DRM downloads earlier this year, but only on iTunes and at a higher price than ones with DRM. Universal doesn’t plan to raise prices.

Tracks will be available in the MP3 format, which works with all digital music players and music-enabled cell phones, including Apple’s market-dominating iPod.

That also means that customers can trade the tracks online and burn them to CD without any restrictions. Labels have in the past insisted on DRM for fear of piracy. But it’s now so easy to rip an MP3 off of a CD or download one illegally online that many critics say DRM is pointless for music.

In fact, many industryites now believe it’s counterproductive since Microsoft’s DRM, used by most musicstores, isn’t compatible with the iPod, while the DRM on iTunes doesn’t work on any device except the iPod. The lack of interoperability may discourage consumers from paying for legal downloads.

UMG said it plans to compare sales of MP3 tracks on its partner sites against sales at iTunes, where songs will still have copy protection. It will be evaluating any increases in sales, as well as the impact on illegal file-sharing.

Test should be a boon for participating musicstores, marking the first time a major label allows them to sell music that plays on the iPod.

Giving a leg up to iTunes’ competitors was likely a major motivator for UMG, which has had disputes with Apple over pricing and recently refused to sign a long-term contract with the company, moving instead to a month-to-month deal.

In addition, Universal and others in the music biz have unsuccessfully pressured Apple to license its DRM, called Fairplay, to competing musicstores.

“This wouldn’t be happening if Apple would license Fairplay,” said one industry source close to the deal. “This is about interoperability and trying to level the playing field for digital music retailers.”

Although many independent diskeries have made their catalogs available for download without copying restrictions for years on sites like eMusic, major labels have been hesitant. With EMI and now UMG jumping in, however, it’s likely that Sony Music and Warner will follow soon.

“Universal Music Group is committed to exploring new ways to expand the availability of our artists’ music online, while offering consumers the most choice in how and where they purchase and enjoy our music,” UMG chairman-CEO Doug Morris said in a statement. “This test, which is a continuation of a series of tests that UMG began conducting earlier in the year, will provide valuable insights into the implications of selling our music in an open format.”

The company will make DRM-free songs available from Aug. 21 to Jan. 31. A spokesman wouldn’t specify how many songs would be included, saying only that “thousands of albums” will be part of the test.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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