Yesterday, Nokia announced a new initiative, Comes With Music, that will offer "free" music to purchasers of certain cellphones. It's the first outgrowth of Nokia's Ovi brand, which the company announced earlier this year. It also seems to be the first implementation of Universal's Total Music plan, in which device makers bundle a music subscription on new devices and add the cost to the price of the device, rather than forcing consumers to pay the monthly fee.
As with all such services, the devil's in the details. According to Ars Technica, there's an awful lot of deviltry going on.
First, the good points: unlimited downloads, yours to keep and play forever, playable on both a computer and your cellphone.
However...the downloads are protected with DRM. (Ars Technica reports that it's Microsoft's PlaysForSure system, but this doesn't sound right to me: Microsoft has a phone-specific DRM system, PlayReady, and Nokia was the first customer for that system, so it would seem odd for Nokia to use a three-year-old DRM system designed for portable and in-home devices instead.) Regardless of which system it's based on, the DRM will reportedly not allow users to burn tracks to CD unless you buy the download again--this closes the analog hole by which users could download a million tracks, burn them, re-rip them to MP3, and post and share wildly. Also, any track protected with a Microsoft DRM system almost certainly won't be transferable to Apple's iPod, and might not be transferable to other types of MP3 players either.
But here's the oddest part: after your year's up, the subscription expires. You get to keep whatever music you've downloaded, but if you want to continue downloading new releases, you'll apparently have to buy a new phone. And Nokia's not yet saying how much extra these Comes With Music phones will cost.
As Saul Hansell points out in the New York Times, Comes With Music/Total Music is at least a good stab at an alternative business model. The current model's certainly not working for the industry. But these "free" tracks have to compete against millions of MP3 files that are already out there, and are actually free in every sense of the word--no cost (free like beer) and no usage restrictions (free like freedom).
Here's an alternate suggestion. Remove the DRM restrictions, but put a monthly limit on downloads so users can't download every song ever recorded then cancel their subscription and keep the music. Maybe 500 songs or 50 albums--that's a very generous amount for even the heaviest music fan. When a certain time period's up--say, a year--start charging for the subscription. A plan like this would still offer significant advantages over file-trading networks--over-the-air downloads, no legal risk, sound quality assurances, no false file names--while being "free" enough in both senses of the word to keep users around.