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What's a fair price for unlimited downloads?

Virgin Media, an ISP in the U.K., has announced plans to offer unlimited DRM-free downloads--not just streams--for a monthly subscription fee. How much will users be willing to pay?

Today, U.K. Internet service provider Virgin Media announced plans to begin offering unlimited song downloads for a monthly subscription fee. The songs will be DRM-free MP3 files, which means they will never expire, even if the user switches ISPs. Universal, the largest record label in the world, is so far the only label to sign on, but the other majors will probably follow.

The deal was announced along with a threat to crack down on illegal downloaders (perhaps through some sort of BitTorrent monitoring, although Virgin claims it won't be doing the monitoring itself), but the companies left the most important question unanswered: how much will it cost?

The labels won't want to settle for less than they're getting through iTunes and other download stores, so Virgin will have to guess how many songs will be downloaded per month, then divide that number by the number of subscribers. After some initial heavy usage, I can imagine users downloading about two albums per month. So I could imagine a rate of about $40 per month. That seems fair compared with subscription-based streaming services like Rhapsody, which starts at $12.99 a month.

But what's fair to the industry may not seem fair to users, who have been downloading free music for almost a decade now. People have proven willing to pay for downloads when they get some other tangible benefit--in the case of iTunes, it's the ease of transferring purchased songs to their iPod or iPhone. When the only extra benefit is a clear conscience and less chance of being sued, I think a lot of users will take the risk and stick with free.

Would you pay a monthly fee for unlimited downloads? If so, how much?

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