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Sony BMG to offer gift cards for unprotected MP3s

Those irked by the company's rootkit snafu, take note: This music is "anonymously watermarked," so it can't be used to identify users or where the music was purchased.

Call it a mix-and-match approach to music retailing.

Sony BMG's Platinum MusicPass

Sony BMG Music Entertainment, one of the top four music labels, is the latest to meld an offline-online sales strategy. The record company said in a press release it will soon offer gift cards through brick-and-mortar stores that can be used to redeem music from the Web.

The best part of the offering is that the music is available in unprotected MP3s, more proof that Sony BMG is easing away from copy-protection software. Citing unnamed sources, BusinessWeek reported last week that the label is preparing to strip digital rights management software from at least part of its catalog. The other three large record companies have already begun dropping DRM.

The gift cards, called Platinum MusicPass, can be purchased at Best Buy, Target, and other retail stores starting Jan. 15. The way they work is this: fans of Alicia Keys, Bruce Springsteen, or other Sony artists can purchase the cards, scratch the back off to reveal a PIN and then punch that number into to retrieve full-length albums. Initially, 37 titles will be offered.

It's important to note that the music is "anonymously watermarked," which means that it can't be used to identify users or where the music was purchased, according to the company. The watermarking is intended to help the label learn whether songs are being shared on peer-to-peer networks.

Considering Sony's history with privacy, it's likely that some users might get spooked.

Sony ignited a major controversy two years ago when it was discovered that the company had used "rootkit" technology to embed copy protection software in its CDs.

The gift cards feature artist images and album information and represent the latest effort by a record company to spur people to buy complete digital albums. The Internet has rung the death knell for albums but the labels continue to look for ways to boost sales.

Other efforts by some of the company's competitors include music-loaded USB drives. Warner Music Group, which recently reported that it's the only major record company to grow unit sales in 2007, released an album by the band Matchbox Twenty on a USB drive fitted into a bracelet.

A nice idea, but the public has yet to show much interest in buying digital music attached to physical packages. Why not just buy a CD and rip the music later?