Universal Goes DRM Free, But Not on iTunes

Universal said late Thursday that it planned to start selling music tracks from its artists in MP3 format for a limited time, however not through Apple's iTunes Music store. Also a surprise in the announcement: Google plans to begin selling MP3s directly from its search engine, BetaNews has learned.

The move from both Universal and Google is a clear shot across the bow of Apple, which has a near stranglehold on the digital music industry. It also seems to indicate that digital rights management may be on its way out with record executives.

"The handwriting for DRM is on the wall," Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg remarked. "Universal is using this to clearly poke Apple with a sharp stick."

Universal denies that it is attempting to shut iTunes out or force some contractual changes. Rather, it will use the service as a control group to measure the success of the offering.

Universal will make the tracks available through the Web sites of the artists themselves, as well as selected online retailers. The tracks will be available from August 21 to January 31, 2008. Among the retailers to offer the MP3s would be Amazon, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, RealNetworks' Rhapsody, among others.

A surprise mention on this list is Google, which up until now had not entered the digital music business. The search company had been offering videos for sale, but the Universal music tracks would be a first. According to sources, the MP3s will be available to buy directly from its search results pages using Google Checkout for payment.

All songs will be offered for 99 cents -- cheaper than the DRM-free tracks iTunes sells from EMI for $1.29 USD. While Universal itself will offer its songs in MP3, other services would be free to use any other DRM-free format of their choice. The label said it also plans to try out other ways to distribute its music throughout the rest of the year.

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