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DRM deathwatch, continued: Universal

Universal, the largest of the four major labels, will offer DRM-free downloads on services, but has left iTunes out, and outed start-up gBox in the process.

Universal Music Group, the largest of the four big music labels, has become the second major to offer DRM-free MP3 downloads.

EMI was first to take the plunge, selling DRM-free files first on Apple's iTunes (in the AAC audio format) and later offering MP3s through a variety of other services via a deal with MediaNet.

Unlike EMI, the Universal deal is only a five-month trial, and the company hasn't announced any such deal with Apple--not surprising, given the two companies' recent history. In fact, nobody should see this as an act of kindness on Universal's part. Rather, it's part of an effort to create more competition in the download market, since having one company (Apple) dominate digital distribution is bad for content owners. Most consumers don't know or care about DRM, but they do want to play the music they've paid for on any device they own. This deal lets Universal sell songs for the most popular digital player in the world, the iPod, without being bound to iTunes.

With two big labels abandoning DRM for downloads, can Sony/BMG and Warner be far behind? Sony in particular has a long history of consumer-unfriendliness when it comes to music and technology, but offering its full catalog as DRM-free downloads would be a nice step toward repairing any lingering bad trust. And Warner Music looks like it could use a bit of help--selling unrestricted MP3 files as broadly as possible might help them out of the doldrums.

An interesting sidenote: the AP reports that the Universal announcement gave some unexpected publicity to a forthcoming digital music service called gBox. I'm not sure how gBox expects to compete with all the other music stores out there (not to mention iTunes), but apparently Universal is buying some search advertising on Google that will direct users toward the service. One unique angle: users will be able to post wishlists of songs for others to buy them as gifts. It sounds similar to Amazon's Wish Listfeature today, which will almost certainly be extended to Amazon's forthcoming music download store. If you've got Windows and use Internet Explorer, you can check out the beta.