Sony BMG Drops DRM

On January 4, BusinessWeek.com reported that Sony BMG Music Entertainment was dropping digital rights management (DRM) from "at least part of its collection." Sony BMG thus becomes the last of the big four music labels to do so—following Warner Music Group's example by less than a week. EMI and Universal Music Group began the stampede earlier in the year, pioneering DRM-free downloads with Amazon.com, among other partners.

We reported previously that both Pepsi and Wal-Mart have been rumored to have pressured the record labels to ditch DRM if they wanted to be included in Wal-Mart's download marketplace and in Pepsi's Super Bowl tie-in music promotion.

Details are, as yet, scanty, but the odds-on bet is that it is the rapidly approaching Pepsi promotion that prompted the move at this time, especially the fact that Justin Timberlake's Jive Records (a Sony BMG affiliate) had already signed on for that event.

One aspect of BusinessWeek.com's coverage came as a surprise to us: An un-named "person familiar with the matter" reported that Sony BMG has been experimenting with DRM-free promotional downloads over the last six months "for recording artists that sell less than 100,000 units." That's the first we've heard of it, although it does remind us of an old music retailing joke.

Q: How do you make a music act disappear?
A: Sign it to RCA (BMG)!

BusinessWeek.com correctly points out that DRM isn't completely dead yet—it's still alive and well in music subscription services, and renting consumers play-only access to their catalogs is clearly a model the record labels relish. And it still exists with a vengeance on DVDs and with streaming and downloaded videos.

However, DRM frequently penalizes legitimate users without deterring illegal downloaders. Blogger Davis Freeberg offered a classic example of that in his post about his experiences with Netflix' "Watch It Now" option. When Freeberg attempted to watch HD streamed video on New Year's Eve, he discovered a prompt telling him to "reset" his DRM. When he then went to Netflix's DRM reset page, he saw an end-user license agreement (EULA) that informed him that resetting his DRM licenses might "potentially remove playback licenses from your computer, including those from companies other than Netflix or Microsoft."

Excuse us for being dense, but don't the only HD files for which licenses exist by definition have to be purchased files? It turned out, Freeberg reports, that the problem was even more mind-boggling than that: His monitor was deemed too high-definition by the sniffer program to be allowed to play HD video. They don't call DRM "defective by design" without cause.

As Sony BMG releases details about how much of the catalog will be available without DRM—and where it will be sold—Stereophile.com will post the details.

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