CNET News' Greg Sandoval is already covering the story, so I won't belabor it, but kudos to Apple and the three holdout record labels--Sony, Universal, and Warner--for reaching an agreement that will result in more than 8 million songs being available on iTunes with no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. (EMI has made DRM-free songs available on iTunes since last spring, but only 10 percent of the music sold in the U.S. comes from EMI.) As Greg reports, Apple will also let users with existing DRM-encrusted downloads upgrade to a DRM-free version at a higher bitrate--256kbps--for an extra 30 cents.
To remind everybody why this is important: this now means that most of the songs you buy on iTunes will be playable on devices and software produced by other companies. Yes, the files are still going to be in Apple's preferred AAC format rather than the more widely supported MP3, but a lot of recent digital music products from other companies do support AAC, including Microsoft's Zune (software and device) and the next version of the Windows Media Player, as well as Sony's most recent Walkman digital media players. SanDisk's popular Fuze and Clip, however, don't support AAC--a failing the company will hopefully fix with a software update.
This truly means that DRM for single-song downloads is dead. iTunes is the No. 1 distributor of digital music by a huge margin, and in fact is the No. 1 music retailer in the U.S., ahead of all brick-and-mortar outlets. DRM will live on in subscription-based services--the record companies aren't going to let you download unlimited music for one month's $15 subscription, then cancel and keep all that music--but otherwise fuggedaboudit.
My only gripe: the news comes six days too late to make my No. 1 prediction for 2008 true. Apple is also making music downloads for the iPhone available over 3G cellular networks in addition to Wi-Fi--another prediction that I made for last year.