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Is DRM-Free a Premium?

DRM is Killing Music (on a shirt) by Giant Robot Printing

Back in April, Apple and The EMI Labels reached an agreement that will see music from its labels (excluding, of course, The Beatles and Radiohead) being sold on the iTunes music store without encrypted copyright protection on its files. The new service is called iTunes Plus, and officially rolled out as part of this week’s 7.2 update.

While users will be able to purchase complete albums from EMI Artists without DRM for the same price iTunes currently charges (around $9.99), individual tracks without DRM will be sold as a premium item (for about $1.29 a track) Users will be given the option of paying the regular iTune per-track price for EMI-released tracks with the DRM, and (should they choose the Plus option) will also the bit rate of the purchased track.

In addition, the per-track may be credited for purchase of the album (if the tracks have been purchased within the last 180 days) through the recently added Complete Your Album feature. Apple is also offering Plus users the chance to upgrade any existing Plus-eligible track/album purchases already in their collection to the DRM-Free ACC format for a fee.

[ad#longpost]The system does inch towards fixing some nagging issues with the Music Store. First off, the Plus files can be played on any device that plays the AAC file format (which just about covers most of the players out there). Users can also choose the bit rate of any Plus purchases at the time of the purchase–eliminating the timely ripping/re-encoding in higher rate conversion process. And the retroactive update feature for eligible tracks you already bought is rather nifty.

But, as is so often the case with any iTunes update, the more that issues get fixed just lead to more issues. Because in exchange for DRM-free files, Apple inserts your name (and the email address you gave Apple when you signed up) into the actual tracks you’re buying. Converting to Plus files is an all or nothing deal–you cannot choose the possible files to convert. And while you can still burn a CD of your purchases and rip it back as mp3–those mp3 files are no longer being seen by your iPod, (which, again, doesn’t mean much if you get the Plus file… or if all you ever use is an iPod). In addition, the only label in on Plus at the moment are the EMI labels.

There are of course reasons for all this that would make both the record labels and Apple happy. Removing the burning/rip workaround encourages other labels to offer Plus files. The price scheme encourages complete album purchases, over the premium per-track price. And embedding id information inside those files provides a way to track the files.

However, the thing I keep coming back to is why I should pay more per track (or even need to find workarounds for music I’m legitimately purchasing) for DRM I didn’t want in the first place? Giving me more options to use the files yet further restricting my use of said purchased files (which you then don’t bother to tell me about) really isn’t a fix, is it?

So, what say you: is DRM-free a premium?