DRM-free Music Arrives on iTunes

Apple made good on its promise to offer DRM-free tracks on Wednesday, launching iTunes Plus with AAC tracks from label EMI.

The tracks are encoded at 256kbps, which the Cupertino company claims is "virtually indistinguishable" from the original recording. The tracks cost $1.29, and those already owning the tracks can upgrade for 30 cents per song or $3.00 per album.

Apple is also offering cheaper versions of EMI tracks in 128kbps AAC with FairPlay DRM at the original price of 99 cents. Apple CEO Steve Jobs also said he expects more than half of Apple's catalog to be DRM-free by the end of the year.

Such a statement may lead some to believe that Apple is actively negotiating with several labels to urge them to follow EMI's lead in dropping DRM. Jobs has also recently spoke out against keeping DRM, saying it has failed to stop piracy.

"This is a tremendous milestone for digital music," said Eric Nicoli, CEO of EMI Group. "Consumers are going to love listening to higher quality iTunes Plus tracks from their favorite EMI artists with no usage restrictions."

With no DRM, Apple can put the squeeze on its small competitors even more, as it is be able to offer digital tracks for any player, even its competitors such as the Creative Zen Micro and Microsoft Zune.

Initial offerings from some of EMI's top acts include Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Frank Sinatra, Joss Stone, Pink Floyd, John Coltrane and more than a dozen of Paul McCartney's classic albums.

"No doubt lots of folks will be looking carefully to see how this goes over with the market," JupiterResearch senior analyst Michael Gartenberg said.

In an unrelated announcement, Apple also announced iTunes U, which is a dedicated area of free content from lectures and other educational material from top universities across the country.

Schools like Stanford have already been using iTunes to disseminate lecture material, however it was not open to the public.

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