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Amazon unshackles digital music

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Special Correspondent

Bangalore: This looks like the end of Digital Rights Management or DRM, the controversial technology adopted by the global giants of the recorded music industry, that sought to control — but often ended up severely hampering — the way customers could play or preserve songs they had legally purchased.

Amazon — the Internet’s biggest mart for books, music and movies — has just launched a new service for paid music download that is free of all DRM restrictions. That means those who pay 89 to 99 U.S. cents (Rs. 35 to Rs. 39) each, for a music track from the Amazon repertoire, can play it on any MP3 -type music player — or even a personal computer — saving it to hard disk, Flash memory stick or CD without restriction.

This will be a huge change: For some years now, the major international music labels embedded DRM technology in their offerings that took away customers’ freedom to rearrange music they had paid for, in different formats and on different platforms for their listening convenience.

In many cases, CDs could not be played on PCs; music downloaded from popular services such as Apple’s iTunes could only be played on the same company’s iPod players, effectively locking in customers, to one provider. The ostensible motive was to prevent piracy — but in practice it hassled millions of legal buyers as well.

Against DRM

While Apple publicly railed against DRM, it continued to embed the technology in its own services, which led many of the 100 million owners of the iconic iPod to doubt its sincerity when it came to curbing such restrictive technology.

Microsoft has created its own MP3 player, the Zune, while Sandisk has come out with Sansa. Sony’s Walkman is also now, an MP3 device. A number of other aggressively priced models, using compact Flash memory and sourced from China, Korea and Taiwan are available in India. Owners of all of them will benefit from the Amazon initiative.

Restrictive technologies such as DRM may soon wither away — because of the gargantuan scale of Amazon’s operations: It can offer 2 million tracks from nearly 200,000 artistes and 20,000 music labels. This is a case where, like Godzilla, “size does matter.”

Amazon’s ‘play anywhere, DRM-free MP3 Music service’ was launched in the form of a public beta or trial, a few days ago at its web site ( www.amazon.com). Full albums cost approximately 10 times as much as single tracks, that is around $ 8 to $ 9.

In India the Amazon service will be meaningful only to the few able to make online dollar payments.

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