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Crave Talk: Apple and EMI to ditch DRM?

Steve Jobs and EMI execs are to make an announcement in London today at 1pm. Will it be DRM-free music? The Beatles on iTunes? Or maybe even both?

Followers of online digital music services are on tenterhooks this morning. Apple boss Steve Jobs is here in London to meet execs of London-based EMI -- one of the world's top four music labels. An announcement is due to be made at 1pm this afternoon and we, along with the world's music obsessives, are eagerly trying to forecast the content of the announcement. It's safe to say it will be something important -- Jobs doesn't get out of bed for less than a brouhaha, let alone cross the Atlantic.

We're confident in putting our money behind it being either The Beatles' catalogue being available on iTunes, or -- much more significantly -- a substantial amount of EMI's back catalogue becoming DRM-free on the iTunes Store, which the Wall Street Journal claimed last night (registration required). Both rumours are built on the foundations of previous events.

Earlier this year, Apple unveiled the iPhone -- a convergence device that includes a widescreen video iPod. During the demonstration, Jobs -- himself a Beatles fan -- used music from the classic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in a demonstration of the iPhone's abilities. Album art was also displayed on the iPhone, projected on an enormous screen behind Jobs. This came shortly after Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer) settled a 25-year dispute with Apple Corps (founded by The Beatles) over rights to the trademark 'Apple'. Rumours of Beatles music on the iTunes Store immediately flooded the Internet.

EMI has previously experimented with distributing music on the Net without copy-protection. Late last year, the label released a track by popular artist Norah Jones completely devoid of DRM. The song was unprotected, meaning there was no barrier to pirating, and had to be bought from Yahoo's Web site. It sold incredibly well. This move was instigated by Yahoo, but it seemed that extracting DRM-free music from a major label was harder than pulling iron from your blood with a magnet. That might be about to change.

It's also no secret that iTunes is the most popular legal download source for digital music, and it's coated in DRM. But did you know the second most popular legal download destination is one that carries almost no mainstream music? eMusic is second only to iTunes and it's not because it also has a lower-case letter before a upper-case letter in its name. No, it's because it recognises music fans will pay for music they could always pirate for free, and it doesn't treat its customers like criminals.

The resounding success of the small number of DRM-free tracks released on to the Net by major labels should only further highlight that most people are honest and will pay for the music they like, but they also want to use it in whatever way they see fit, on their computer or on whichever portable player they choose.

Only two months ago, Jobs himself called for the end of DRM, claiming "[DRM-free music] is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat."

For these reasons, we think today's announcement from Apple and EMI could go one of two ways, if not both, and either would be met with voluminous applause by music lovers. Music without DRM would be a sensational success and EMI has the power to prove to the other three major labels -- and the world -- that music lovers are not crooks; they're devout and passionate people who will continue to support the artists they love by paying for music.

Be sure to check back here at CNET.co.uk for an update this afternoon after 1pm. -Nate Lanxon