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Wal-Mart Ditches DRM

This announcement completes the company’s shift into DRM-free music territory that began back in August 2007. Although the DRM-free service has been in place for over a year, the digital rights management servers have remained online for consumers who previously bought protected WMA files. However, if consumers do not burn the protected files onto a recordable audio CD, their music will become unplayable next month.

"Beginning October 9, we will no longer be able to assist with digital rights management issues for protected WMA files purchased from," states Wal-Mart in its email." If you do not back up your files before this date, you will no longer be able to transfer your songs to other computers or access your songs after changing or reinstalling your operating system or in the event of a system crash. Your music and video collections will still play on the originally authorized computer."

As an option, Wal-Mart began selling DRM-free MP3s through its online store back in August 2007, doubling the bitrate to 256Kbps in the new MP3 format from the previously sold 128Kbps WMA versions. But when the company’s music offering became totally DRM-free back in February 2008, the retail giant became a solid competitor to iTunes, Rhapsody and Amazon.

The movement to DRM-free territory is not a surprising one considering the overall negative response of consumers to the limitations. Although the technology prevents file sharing, DRM is actually a deterrent to sales, making it difficult for legit consumers to transfer the media from one platform (PC) to another (portable device). Even Apple’s Steve Jobs opposes DRM technology, thus sparking the DRM-free music distribution with EMI last year.

"Selling digital music DRM-free is the right step forward for the music industry," said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. "EMI has been a great partner for iTunes and is once again leading the industry as the first major music company to offer its entire digital catalogue DRM-free."

But doesn’t DRM-free music only invite consumers to share their files over p2p networks? Actually, no. According to Ars Technica, iTunes embeds personal information into the purchased file. Thus, if the music ends up on a p2p network, the RIAA can pull up the buyer’s full name and email address. Although no other online companies were named, it’s safe to assume that iTunes competitors will most likely embed personal information as well.

As for Wal-Mart, providing DRM-free music is a huge step in the right direction, however its online store has yet to support any other browser outside Internet Explorer. Perhaps once the DRM servers go offline on October 9, the company will focus on expanding its store to Firefox and Opera users as well.