Will no-DRM mean more lawsuits?

After my most recent post on the RIAA and CD copying, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m on an anti-record industry rant, but I have to wonder at all of the rainbows-and-kittens commentary on Sony’s reported move to offer non-DRM tracks. According to BusinessWeek, the label is going to start offering mp3 files with no digital-rights management restrictions, beginning with a Justin Timberlake promotion.

Will this be a noteworthy step, if it actually happens? Sure it will. Sony is one of the few remaining holdouts on offering non-DRM tracks. But before everyone gets all warm and fuzzy about the giant record labels, I’d just like to point out that they are still suing people for downloading and sharing music, and there are plenty more similar suits on the books. Does Sony’s move mean that the industry has suddenly turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge did in A Christmas Carol? Unlikely.

I would imagine the major labels are somewhat chastened by the fact that CD sales were down by 20 per cent or so this Christmas compared to the previous one, and down about 10 per cent for the year (or perhaps even more than that). But that doesn’t mean they are going to start hosting Limewire parties or joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In fact, I’m afraid it could actually lead to more lawsuits rather than fewer.

At least with DRM controls, the labels could convince themselves that their job was done, and let technology carry the bag. Now, the industry will have to confront the fact that all of the non-DRM tracks it releases into the wild will be untraceable and completely shareable. Will that convince them that they need to find new business models, or at least modify the existing ones? Perhaps. Or it might make them even more likely to launch a lawsuit.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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