Entertainment retailer Play.com is to challenge Apple's iTunes in the digital download market by offering tracks which can be used on any MP3 player.
The music industry has been relying on digital rights management (DRM) technology which wraps around a music file in order to protect it from being used in certain ways. This means that tunes downloaded on iTunes can be burnt on to a CD or used on an iPod but cannot be used with other types of MP3 players.
Play.com claimed yesterday to be the first major UK retailer to offer downloads from major labels such as EMI that are free of DRM technology. The online shop is also offering some tracks at 65p, 14p cheaper than iTunes lowest-priced tracks.
So far Play.com has signed up EMI and a number of large independent retailers, who have agreed to offer tracks DRM free, giving customers access to artists such as Adele, the Arctic Monkeys and Kylie Minogue. It is currently in talks with Universal, Sony BMG and Warner Music and hopes to sign them up soon.
By launching first in the UK, Play.com is hoping to steal a march on Amazon, which has already signed all four major music groups and is currently offering DRM-free downloads in the US. It is only a matter of time before Amazon launches DRM-free downloads in the UK, although it has not set a date.
Analysts said the move by Play.com shows the new entrants are banking on DRM disappearing altogether. James Suddaby, editor of music website ILikeMusic.com, said it was "great news that somebody was challenging iTunes in the UK" as it meant more choice for the consumer. But he said it raised the question of the value of music. "This is moving towards music being free," he said. Web-savvy teenagers don't even think about buying music, he added.