Digital rights management (DRM) may soon be a thing of the past. Finally we will be able to download music and play it when we like, where we like and on whatever equipment we like.
But first, what is DRM and why has it been thought necessary for so long?
In 1998-1999ish, I remember coming across on the Internet – which was in its infancy as far as the general public was concerned – files with the suffix MP3. And the names of these files were often song titles that I recognized.
It didn't take too much brain power to work out that these were audio files, but what was this MP3 thing?
I researched further and found that it was short for MPEG2 Layer 3. I already knew about MPEG and MPEG2 as means of reducing the size of video data files, and I knew that they could handle audio too, but I had not previously been aware of audio-only MPEG files.
So I equipped myself with MP3 player software and downloaded some tracks from a website called GoodNoise (now eMusic).
The sound quality wasn't as good as CD, but good enough to satisfy the casual listener. And of course the files were much smaller than they would otherwise have been.
In those days it took around 15 minutes to download just one song in MP3 format!
And then in the course of my research I found something startling – that it was possible to download virtually any song you liked for free. Generally not from websites, but via other means that predated Kazaa and peer-to-peer networks.
And of course, no-one was getting paid for this. It was completely illegal and constituted piracy on a large scale.
And then Napster came along, and then the decentralized peer-to-peer networks, and suddenly it was a massive free for all. Music was there, just for the taking.
Now clearly it is illegal to make music available for free download, unless you have the permission of the copyright owners. But even now, the might of the world's four great record companies – Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG and Universal Music Group – seems unable to completely stop the flow of illegal downloads.
For some time after the emergence of MP3 downloads, the record companies adopted an anti-technology stance. They wanted physical products to be the only way that music could be bought.
They campaigned against downloading in general and point blank refused to allow legal downloads. Only small independent record companies made their music available online.
But then Apple made the record companies an offer they couldn't refuse – a legal, paid-for download service with digital rights management (DRM).
And suddenly the whole thing became popular. Very popular. Nowhere near as popular as CDs, but a 'nice little earner' for all concerned.
But there was the problem of DRM. And yes, it is a problem.
Apple's version of DRM, known as FairPlay, allows the purchaser of a download to play it on up to five authorized computers, and of course their iPod. But they cannot play it on any other MP3 player.
Sony got involved in DRM too, for CDs this time rather than downloads. They developed a system that installed anti-copying software on your computer before you could play a CD. Not only that, it installed a 'root kit', which is software that hides the anti-copying software from view.
Virus writers use root kits too. It was so unpopular that Sony was taken to court and has had to compensate affected users.
The problem with DRM is that it spells trouble for the user. No-one has yet come up with a DRM system that permits the user their full spectrum of legal rights (not that we have many in the UK in this respect, but in the US they do) and freedom for the purchaser to enjoy their download in any way they wish.
And of course pirates are completely unaffected. Any pirate can take the audio output of a CD player and convert the signal to MP3, whether or not the CD has DRM. And Apple's FairPlay system was cracked almost the moment it came out.
So the pirates win, genuine customers lose.
And the record companies lose too. iTunes may have sold two billion downloads. But without DRM it could have been twenty billion by now!
I personally have never bought a track from iTunes. I love the iPod, but there is no way I want to be restricted to only using that device to play my music collection.
And the legislators of some European countries have started to see it the same way. Why should one company dictate which brand of hardware an individual must use? Norway in particular has given Apple a deadline to resolve this issue. Apple must either open up FairPlay to other manufacturers, or stop using it.
Apple has said that it is impractical to open FairPlay to other manufacturers. The reality however is that if any manufacturer can use FairPlay, it is useless to Apple as a means of locking in iTunes customers to the iPod.
Once these measures are enacted in Norway, it is likely that there will be a wave of change all over Europe. Apple will either have to remove the iTunes service from those countries or give up FairPlay.
Something amazing has happened.
Steve Jobs (Apple's CEO) has spoken out and said that DRM should be done away with. “This is clearly the best alternative for consumers” he says.
This means that music can be downloaded and you can play it on any player, store it and back it up in any way you like.
The record companies will be fearful of 'leakage' where one person illegally copies a track for another. But this will be tiny compared to the massive extra sales they will get when people are free to use their purchases any way they want for their own personal pleasure.
Distribution of copyright music by peer-to-peer networks will still be illegal of course. But there are thoughts that eventually peer-to-peer downloads could be tracked automatically and copyright owners paid through some kind of licensing system.
I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the current restrictions that are in place are harming music, and its creators, a lot more than they are helping.
In the future, I believe that anyone will be able to copy, transfer and download music with total freedom. And technology will be in place not to restrict this, but to enable it, and at the same time allow people who create music to receive fair remuneration for their work.
Music could be headed for a new golden age.