Yahoo Music continues DRM-free download experiment

Yahoo has offered is continuing its experiment with sales of music in MP3 format, with the release of a track from Norah Jones

Yahoo put another music track without DRM (digital rights management) on sale through its Yahoo Music service Tuesday.

The Norah Jones single "Thinking About You" sells for US$0.99, in MP3 format on Yahoo's music store, and in DRM-encumbered AAC format on Apple Computer's iTunes Store. Both formats will play on PCs, Macs and the market-leading iPod portable music player, but only the MP3 version will play on other portable music players.

DRM technology is used to set limits on how, when, how many times and on what devices a file may be played. While DRM can be applied to music in AAC, ATRAC or WMA format, it cannot be introduced into MP3 files.

Yahoo first experimented with selling MP3 files without DRM in July, when it offered Jessica Simpson's "A Public Affair" as an MP3 file for US$1.99. While that track was not tied to a particular PC or music player with DRM, the audio track was personalized to contain a first name of the purchaser's choice, picked from a list of hundreds of prerecorded names, limiting its interest to other listeners.

Since then, Yahoo has sold an entire album by the artist Jesse McCartney in both MP3 and the DRM-encumbered WMA (Windows Media Audio) format, but has not published sales figures for the two formats.

Some see the release of tracks in MP3 format, without DRM, as a big gamble for record labels, as nothing prevents buyers from uploading them to file-sharing networks.

In reality, DRM does little to stop such behavior, but makes life harder for legitimate music users, said analyst Mark Mulligan, a vice president at Jupiter Research in the U.K.

"Most of the DRM in place is not going to stop piracy. You've got limits on CD-burning, but all of that is cracked immediately if you burn it onto CD and rip it back in again. Anyone with an ounce of tech-savvy is going to know how to get around that," he said.

But the fact that there's nothing to stop listeners copying and sharing MP3 files could work to record labels' advantage, said Mulligan.

"It's going to be implemented more as marketing than anything else," he said.

Blue Note Records, the record label promoting the Jones track, is only releasing the single, not an entire album, in MP3 format for now. If Mulligan is right, it could be just a marketing gimmick to build awareness of the album, which will go on sale in January.

Major record labels are starting to look more seriously at MP3 distribution because of the success of eMusic.com, which Mulligan says is the second-largest online music download store in the U.S., after that of Apple. EMusic sells music from independent record labels in MP3 format.

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