London, Breaking with established practice, the EMI Group announced today that the record label’s digital catalog would go on sale over the Internet without built-in copy restrictions.
EMI, the world’s third-largest recording company, will start selling the songs in May through Apple’s iTunes service and other online music retailers.
"We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music," said EMI Chief Executive Eric Nicoli.
EMI will also continue to offer DRM-protected versions of its music catalogue for the existing standard iTunes rate of 79p a track, at the current audio quality level.
Music fans will be able to upgrade all their "standard quality" EMI music tracks already bought on iTunes for a per song without having to buy all their music again at a higher price. Albums of DRM-free tracks will remain at their existing price.
Previously a track bought on iTunes and encoded with Apple's FairPlay DRM software would only work on an iPod but not on rival digital music players.
All tracks sold via iTunes are encoded in the AAC format, rather than the more common MP3 standard. An analyst from JupiterResearch says this means that digital music players from a few companies, such Creative and Zen, will not be compatible with the new iTunes downloads.
Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, who shared the stage with Mr. Nicoli for the announcement, predicted that half of the songs available on iTunes would be sold without restrictions by the end of the year. None of the other three major record labels, which with EMI account for 70 percent of songs sold today, have said how they might react.
“Today, EMI is taking the next big step forward in the digital music revolution,” said Mr. Jobs, whose online music store has more than 70 percent of the market for downloaded music. “This is something that will become very popular.”
EMI’s digital catalog does not include the Beatles, however. EMI has the rights to the group’s recordings on CD, but the Beatles’ record company, Apple Corps, has not yet granted digital rights.
The copy restrictions used by iTunes have placed Mr. Jobs and Apple under attack in Europe. Critics, ranging from Norway’s largest consumer rights group to members of the French legislature, have taken Apple to task — and to court — for making music purchased on iTunes compatible only with Apple’s own iPod music player.
“Jobs was clearly here in Europe to send a strong message to the discontent in Norway and the French parliament,” Mr. Mulligan said.
Some of the Europeans most critical of Jobs and iTunes praised the move.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era — an era where the entertainment industry works with the customer and not against them,” Torgeir Waterhouse, a senior adviser in Norway’s Consumer Council, said in a statement. “I applaud their move and encourage all the other contenders in the digital music business to make the same important move.”