Sources: Apple to expand DRM-free music, pricing

Moving further away from its one-price-fits-all model, the company will allow top four music labels more price flexibility.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
2 min read

Editor's note: This article was written Monday, before Apple made any announcements about changes to iTunes. You can read the story that followed the company's formal announcement at Macworld 2009 here.

Apple has cut deals that will finally enable iTunes to offer songs free of copy protection software from the three largest music labels, according to two sources close to the negotiations. In exchange, Apple has agreed to become more flexible on pricing, the sources said.

Under the terms of the deal, song prices will be broken down into three categories--older songs from the catalog, midline songs (newer songs that aren't big hits), and current hits--said one of the sources. Apple has offered songs free of digital rights management protections from EMI for more than a year. But EMI accounts for less than 10 percent of music sold in the U.S.; these new deals will expand iTunes' DRM-free library to include songs from the other three major labels (Sony BMG, Universal, and Warner Music).

Apple and the music labels have also apparently come to terms on over-the-air downloads, according to a source. That would allow iPhone owners to download songs to their mobile devices via cell networks and without the aid of Wi-Fi. Apple, which closed the deals last week, could announce the agreements as early as Tuesday at the Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

DRM-free songs are something that many iTunes users have requested for some time. However, the celebration over their appearance at the country's largest music retailer may be overshadowed by increased prices on some hit songs, which might be seen by some as an Apple surrender on pricing. Apple fans have long applauded the company for holding the line on pricing despite loud complaints from the major music labels.

The good news is that the price of catalog music is falling to 79 cents per song. The labels will get an opportunity to price some hit songs for more than 99 cents but eventually those songs will drop to 79 cents, according to one source.

Before iTunes users get too worked up, they should remember that song prices at iTunes haven't increased in five years. According to the Consumer Price Index, a 99-cent song in 2002 would be worth $1.17 today.

Not only will new music downloads be free of copy-protection software, but Apple and the labels will begin removing DRM from music already available in the iTunes Store, the source said. However, it's unclear what will happen to songs that have already been purchased.

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