Non-DRM versus MP3

Steve Jobs recently announced with EMI that he is making EMI’s entire catalog available in “non-DRM (digital rights management) format” and is doing so for the low extra price of $0.30 a track. So for $1.29 you get a song at iTunes with no DRM on it. The announcement implies that this change is a benefit to the consumer. You need to fully understand the difference between Steve’s “non-DRM” and MP3 to see that Steve Jobs is not doing you any big favor here.

Steve’s version of “non-DRM” is a file formatted with the AAC codec. This codec is supported by the iPod, the Mac, and few other devices. Odds are good that if you use a PC or have a mobile phone capable of playing music it doesn’t play AAC files easily, even though it does play MP3 formatted files.

MP3 is the most portable format across devices. I took a quick inventory of my travel bag — my MP3 player, my Mac, my PC, my mobile phone and even my Garmin GPS can all play MP3 files. Anyone can copy an MP3 file to any of these devices, often just by dropping it to a flash memory card. Seconds later, the music is there to enjoy.

Let’s compare this with Steve’s “non-DRM” AAC files. Of all those devices in my travel bag, only my Mac and PC would easily play the AAC files. In fact, one can make the case that for $0.30 more you received no additional benefit over the $0.99 file you bought with DRM at Steve’s shop – at least no benefit that you are likely to realize. Unless you have software that transcodes AAC  files to MP3 (and few regular consumers do), you’ll need to burn an audio CD of your music and then rip it back into your computer as MP3 files to get interoperable files. In fact, you usually have to re-type all of the Artist, Album, and Song data, unless your CD was the full album and you burned it in exactly the same track order as the original album.

So what did you get for the extra money you paid? You received a song that can be burned an unlimited number of times. What did you lose? Space on your hard disk and your iPod , because the non-DRM file is larger than the DRM file Steve was previously selling you.

When we offer “Non-DRM” files at PassAlong Networks they are MP3 files. They play everywhere, including your iPod, Mac, PC, Garmin GPS, your mobile phone, your MP3 alarm clock, and many more devices. It’s music’s Esperanto, if you will – true “interoperability” in music means MP3.

We in the music industry do consumers a disservice when we represent or imply a value only to disappoint the consumer when they run up against the truth behind the rhetoric. For digital music to achieve its full potential, we need open honest communication on the issues  — not marketing rhetoric.

Mark Knopfler’s famous words defined a previous music generation. Today, if you want true interoperability, you’ll sing “I want my MP3.”

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