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EMI launches DRM-free music downloads


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LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - EMI said it was making its digital music catalog available without the anti-piracy measure known as digital rights management (DRM), with Apple Inc.'s iTunes as its first retail outlet.


"The new higher quality DRM-free music will complement EMI's existing range of standard DRM-protected downloads already available," EMI said in a statement on Monday as the company began a press conference in central London with Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs.


"From today, EMI's retailers will be offered downloads of tracks and albums in the DRM-free audio format of their choice in a variety of bit rates up to CD quality," EMI added.


Apple said iTunes would make individual tracks available from EMI artists at twice the sound quality of existing downloads, with their DRM removed, at a price of $1.29, 1.29 euros and 99 pence.


As expected there was no announcement regarding a Beatles deal, as some followers had anticipated when EMI announced on Sunday that it would hold a press conference with Apple.


EMI has acted as the distributor for the Beatles since the early 1960s, but the Fab Four's music holding company Apple Corps Ltd. has been a high-profile hold-out from Internet music services like Apple's iTunes.


Earlier this year, Jobs called on the world's four major record companies, including EMI, to start selling songs online without copy-protection software, known as DRM, for digital rights management. DRM software is designed to thwart piracy but also makes using music cumbersome for many consumers.


Jobs argued that there appeared to be no benefit for the record companies in selling more than 90 percent of their music without DRM on compact discs, while selling the remaining small percentage of music online encumbered with DRM.


Executives at several rival record companies said they had expected EMI to drop DRM but questioned whether EMI had done sufficient market research to justify the move.


"It's problematic," said one executive. "EMI haven't tested it enough so they don't know what the market reaction is going to be to open MP3s."


MP3s are an open audio format that allows digital music fans to share songs or albums with other listeners. The music industry has shunned the standard in favor of formats that require some form of copy protection.


"The issues are will MP3s help expand the market and how will it affect piracy? We just don't know," the executive said. EMI's biggest market test was with Norah Jones' single "Thinking About You" in January, while Sony BMG tested the market with Jessica Simpson's "A Public Affair" last summer.


(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard, Duncan Martell and Michael Kahn in San Francisco, Kenneth Li in New York and Gavin Haycock in London)

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