When Apple Inc. called a news conference last week, reporters on the tech and music beats believed they knew what was coming: CEO and Beatles freak Steve Jobs was going to make the announcement expected more than three months ago, that the coveted Beatles catalog was going to be digitized and available on iTunes.
He didn't. Apparently Paul, Ringo, Olivia, Yoko and however any lawyers it takes to fill the Albert Hall have yet to come to terms on how the new Apple can be sliced. Instead, Jobs made an announcement that should prove a lot more momentous: The end of what the download and MP3 industries politely refer to as DRM - digital rights management.
For the download elite, this means nothing; they not only get the music they want free, they get it before it's released; as a computer-savvy pal of mine says, he has "friends in Central America."
But for the vast silent majority of casual consumers, it means that the restrictions of legal downloading - the ones that prevent them from playing the music they buy from iTunes on other players, like the increasingly popular Zune or the cheap iPod alternatives you can buy at Wal-Mart, or burning them onto discs for the car or home stereo - will be removed from all product released by EMI.
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The company distributes the catalogs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Garth Brooks and hundreds of other pop, R&B, classical and jazz artists.
EMI's best-known brand labels are the venerated Capitol, Virgin, classical colossus Angel and jazz legend Blue Note. It hasn't had much luck breaking new acts or selling new albums, even though it has been gifted with new artists like Lily Allen. Paul McCartney announced that he was leaving after 40 years, and Bob Seger, who caught Capitol off guard by producing a million-seller, has put the company on notice.
Yet the EMI library is deep and invaluable, and the company has been convinced by Jobs and Apple that it will sell more songs by giving buyers freedom to use what they purchase in any manner they see fit. Does that mean EMI and the artists will lose royalties when the buyer makes duplicates? Sure it does - the same way an author and publisher lose when you loan a book to a friend.
More to the point is what Viacom, for example, refuses to acknowledge when it sues YouTube for violating copyright: You can't put toothpaste back in the tube.
It's only a matter of time before the other music companies follow suit, and if they stubbornly refuse, old fogies like me will learn how to make new friends in Central America. Think about it: We don't have to learn how to set the clocks on our VCRs anymore, because our TiVos and DVRs know what time it is.