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iTunes store goes DRM-free

(As published in the Racquette Newspaper)

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Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the concept controlling what someone can and can’t do with a file. In the world of recorded music, DRM is built into a sound file (.wav, .aac or .mp3). DRM code can exist on individual files purchased online or entire CDs purchased at your local record store. If you have ever tried to make a copy of a DRM-protected music file or burn a DRM-protected CD, you may have received an error message that you had insufficient rights to complete the action.   

DRM code was put in place with music specifically to prevent what is officially known as “unauthorized duplication.” However, the code has no way of knowing whether or not the user is simply making a mix CD of their favorite songs or if they’re making copies to give or even sell to their friends illegally. Some DRM software has been found to act as malware, which makes the host computer vulnerable to viruses. These issues have made digital rights management a very controversial topic. 

It has been argued that laws to back up the restrictions placed on users by DRM don’t exist. The Free Software Foundation, advocates of freeware and open source code, have stated in the past that DRM should actually stand for “Digital Restrictions Management” because of the control that DRM takes over files. 

Until April 1, 2009, the vast majority of the songs available on Apple’s iTunes Store were DRM protected. The only tracks without DRM-protection were referred to as “iTunes Plus tracks.” These tracks were mostly made up of music under the EMI label. Through an agreement with SONY BMG, Warner Music and Universal, iTunes will now be offering all of its music DRM-free.

While Amazon has been offering DRM-free music from all four major labels for almost a year, the songs have only been available in .mp3 format. iTunes songs are available in .aac format, the higher quality successor to the .mp3. The encoding for DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks is 256-kbps (kilobytes per second), twice the bit rate of the original DRM-protected files. The lack of DRM coding also means that songs purchased from the iTunes store are playable on as many Macs or PCs as the listener chooses. 

It is possible to upgrade current DRM-protected iTunes purchases to the DRM-free versions, but the service is not free. Users must choose to either keep their DRM-protected files or upgrade all of them at a cost of 30 cents per song. 

It has been made clear that the lack of DRM-protection is not meant to encourage or allow the pirating of music but instead to allow the listener to use their own discretion when it comes to making copies of the files.

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