By Stephen Robb
Entertainment reporter, BBC News
EMI is to become the first major record label to sell music online without copy protection, so will the move spark a digital music revolution?
Apple's iTunes online music store dominates the download market
The world's third-biggest label made the announcement in a joint press conference with Apple, whose iTunes store will start selling the tracks in May, with other online stores to follow.
Online music's Digital Rights Management (DRM) protections have been controversial, with critics branding them "Digital Restrictions Management".
The software embedded in the music limits how it can be copied and on which devices it can be played. Many in the recording industry claim is necessary to fight music piracy.
But some companies and consumer groups argue that the incompatibility of different systems is anti-competitive and punishes innocent consumers.
For instance, DRM has meant iTunes songs can only be played on Apple's iPod, but the device will not recognise tracks from some other online stores, such as Napster.
It means songs can become unusable if people change music providers or players, or the download company goes out of business.
EMI chief executive Eric Nicoli admitted on Monday that the label's move was intended to "address the lack of interoperability which is frustrating for many music fans".
People will be able to buy songs to work on any computer operating system or player.
Apple boss Steve Jobs predicted that other record labels would follow and that more than half of iTunes' music would be DRM-free by the end of the year.
The other three majors - Universal Music, Sony BMG Music and Warner Music - have so far announced no plans to offer their catalogues DRM-free.
Last month, Warner Music said Mr Jobs' call for the scrapping of DRM was "without logic and merit".
"I think it's a good, brave move from EMI and maybe the others are happy to sit back and wait and see," said Paul Scaife, publisher of the music industry's Record of the Day newsletter.
"I would think it would push them to do something and there may well be a public tide that starts turning against them and starts forcing their hand."
Rough Trade is one of a number of independent labels already selling DRM-free music online.
Director Stephen Godfroy said: "Hopefully we will look back on this and see it as a significant official announcement in that it started a move by the other major labels to follow suit.
"Certainly at the moment it doesn't look as if it's going to create this snowball effect, but it leaves the other major labels in a slightly untenable position."
"I would be surprised if DRM existed to its current extent by the end of the year," he added.
eMusic, a protection-free download service which is second only to iTunes in the US, said the move was "a big win for customers".
"Digital retailers will now have a product customers truly want to buy because it offers high quality and flexibility," said president David Pakman.
Question of quality
iTunes' DRM-free tracks will cost 99p and be twice the audio quality of its current 79p songs. Albums will be of improved quality but unchanged in price.
Mr Scaife said: "It almost seems an admission that what you had before wasn't very good in terms of quality."
He also questioned whether Apple would be paying more money to the record labels and artists from the sales of the higher-priced songs.
79p single - with digital locks and at 128kbps quality
99p single - no digital locks and 256kbps quality
Album prices unchanged with no locks and all at 256kbps
Analysts say removal of DRM will benefit Apple, which leads the digital music sales market with its iTunes store.
Apple said it did not discuss its arrangements with commercial partners, but Mr Jobs on Monday said its current downloads were "the best audio quality offered by any mainstream digital music store".
"As portable music players have increased their storage while at the same time coming down in price it is time to reconsider delivering even higher audio quality than is currently available." he said.
Worldwide music downloads last year were almost double the number in 2005, reaching a value of about $2bn (£1bn), according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
But digital music sales still represent only about 10% of all sales.
Mr Godfroy argues that to have copy protection on one format but not another is an "anomaly".
"You have got to trust the consumer," he said.
"When they buy a CD you trust them to use it and respect the licence - it's exactly the same when buying a download.
"DRM is saying, 'We don't trust you when it comes to downloads.' It doesn't make sense."