EMI strikes deal with Apple to sell songs online free from copying restrictions

EMI Group PLC on Monday announced a deal that will allow computer company Apple Inc. to sell the record company’s songs online without copy protection software.

Customers of Apple’s iTunes store will soon be able to play downloaded songs by the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Coldplay and other top-selling artists without the copying restrictions once imposed by their label.

EMI Chief Executive Eric Nicoli said The Beatles music catalog is excluded from the deal, but said the company was “working on it.” He declined to set a time frame for negotiations over the catalog.

The announcement followed calls by Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs earlier this year for the world’s four major record companies, including EMI, to start selling songs online without copy protection software.

The software, known as digital rights management, or DRM, was designed to combat piracy by preventing unauthorized copying, but can make downloading music difficult for consumers.

Software used by Apple does not work with competing services or devices, meaning that consumers can only download songs from iTunes to iPod music players. The linkages between the download services and players has drawn criticism from European industry regulators, who argue that it limits buyer choice.

“Doing the right thing for the customer going forward is to tear down the walls that impede interoperability,” Jobs told a London news conference.

He has previously argued there was little benefit to record companies selling more than 90 percent of their music without DRM on compact discs, then selling the remaining percentage online with DRM.

Some analysts suggest that lifting the software restrictions could boost sales of online music, which currently account for around 10 percent of global music sales.

The DRM-free versions of each single track, which will also be of a higher quality, will cost buyers 20 percent more than standard versions of tracks, a statement from Apple Inc. said.

Jobs said that he planned to offer around half of all music in the iTunes store under the premium package by the end of the year, but declined to say whether the company was in discussions with other leading record companies.

“Consumers tell us overwhelmingly that they would be prepared to play a higher price for digital music that they could use on any player,” Nicoli said. “It is key to unlocking and energizing the digital music business.”

The iTunes music store will begin offering EMI’s entire catalog _ apart from The Beatles _ without DRM software starting next month, he said.

EMI has acted as the distributor for The Beatles since the early 1960s, but The Beatles’ music holding company, Apple Corps Ltd., has so far declined to allow the Fab Four’s music on any Internet music services, including iTunes.

The situation was exacerbated by a long-running trademark dispute between Apple Inc. and Apple Corps. That legal feud was resolved in February when the two companies agreed on joint use of the apple logo and name, a deal many saw as paving the way for an agreement for online access to the Fab Four’s songs.

Apple Corps was founded by the Beatles in 1968 and is still owned by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, the widow of John Lennon and the estate of George Harrison.