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Will unveil DRM-free music store

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At least one newspaper thinks the battle against piracy is all over - and the Recording Industry Ass. of America, backed by Apple, has won.

But Michael Robertson isn't so sure. The MP3.com founder who tangled with the music industry in a number of lawsuits before selling to Universal three years ago, is set to unveil MP3tunes, a new music service on Monday.

Although signing up to Apple's iTunes Music Store, or one of the 'Nappletizers', is fast, convenient, and as easy as falling off a log, the numbers tell their own story. Billions of illegal downloads take place each month, vastly outnumbering the hundreds of millions the lock-down services have sold over the year. Even the most bullish predictions don't see the RIAA-backed option taking more than a few percentages out of the entire music market even by the end of the decade.

Robertson thinks he knows the reason why.

The music that Robertson will sell through MP3tunes won't come with any locks and keys. There'll be no need to 'authorize' your player, align your furniture, or pray to Cupertino in the hope the music will play. Robertson's store will be DRM free.

IDG reports that he'll sell songs at 88 cents a piece, or $8.88 per album. But until he unveils the service at the Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego next week, Robertson is keeping more details, specifically about who he's signed, under wraps. But he clearly sees there's plenty of opportunity for a better business idea than cuffing up the punter before sending them on their way.

"I'm not excited about a world where every piece of music has to have a fruit logo on it," Robertson told ExtremeTech today. A year ago he was even blunter about the business prospects for the DRM-encumbered music services. Noting that the business model allows them keep a few cents for hosting, promotion and administration, he concluded - "This is a race where the winner gets shot in the head".

Of course with the iPod, Apple might be crying all the way to the bank. But there's no lasting evidence that music lovers regard iTMS as more than a short-lived novelty, before they move on. A survey last year showed that "legitimate" downloaders were more likely to buy physical CDs, echoing Robertson's prediction of a music marketplace. There'll be CDs, and there'll be illegal downloads, he said, and that leaves little room for download stores with poor choice and lock and key restrictions.

"DRM ... penalizes paying customers," Robertson told Extreme Tech today. "If you can get music from file sharing networks and pay nothing, and then get it from the record guys with a pair of handcuffs attached…I think it's awful."

The experience of DRM-free stores should give him encouragement.

Services that shun DRM have won a loyal, and in some cases profitable following. British indie Warp Records' Bleep.com store has been such a success - it offers much better quality song files than Napster or iTunes - that it's added a clutch of popular indies, including roots/world label Cooking' Vinyl, Manchester's Twisted Nerve, and three dozen more. The songs are slightly more expensive, but a label representative told us it offers much better terms than what Apple could. And with no DRM, everyone's happy.

Sites such as Better Propaganda have also won a loyal following by shunning DRM. Better Propaganda is staffed by music lovers and industry insiders and clearly works hard to provide DRM-less downloads and streams of high quality music. Sites like it prove that process issues like "ease of use" aren't in themselves enough. Unlike iTunes, which one reader at launch compared to "an airport kiosk without the chewing gum", it helps to have people who know and care about the music, and have recommendations you'd want to pursue.

Well, duh!

Microsoft's Orwellian choice of name for its Janus DRM architecture - Redmond will brand it as "Plays For Sure™, suggests the company knows very well that consumers remain anxious about lock-down music. It's a situation exacerbated by the deep incompatibilites between Microsoft's lock-up scheme, and the schemes used by Apple, Real's Rhapsody and the soon-to-be-introduced OMA-compliant services from the mobile carriers. None of which are compatible.

Robertson hinted that the new service will offer "MP3beamer" - which will allow the user to listen to music they've purchased anywhere, on any device. Sound familiar? MP3.com introduced a "locker" service which allowed members to listen to their CDs anywhere too, but it ran into fierce litigation from the Recording Industry Ass. of America.

More details will emerge next week, and The Reg will be on hand at the Summit to report them. ®

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