Universal Music Group said Thursday it will allow digital tracks from thousands of albums by artists such as Sting, 50 Cent and Stevie Wonder to be sold online without copy-protection technology for a limited time.
The tracks will be available for purchase on the recording artists' Web sites and through several established online music retailers. They will be playable on devices that are compatible with the MP3 format, including Apple Inc.'s iPods.
However, they will not be available for sale at Apple's iTunes store.
Although many independent music labels have made their catalogs available for download without copying restrictions for years, the major recording companies have been opposed to selling music without so-called digital-rights management, or DRM, technology for fear doing so would exacerbate online piracy.
Earlier this year, however, Britain's EMI Music Group PLC parted with the rest of the industry and let Apple begin selling versions of its songs with higher audio quality and without any copying hurdles built in.
The test by Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, the world's largest recording company, suggests the rest of the major recording companies may follow suit before long.
"Universal Music Group is committed to exploring new ways to expand the availability of our artists' music online, while offering consumers the most choice in how and where they purchase and enjoy our music," Doug Morris, UMG's chairman and CEO said in a statement. "This test, which is a continuation of a series of tests that UMG began conducting earlier in the year, will provide valuable insights into the implications of selling our music in an open format."
The company will make DRM-free songs available Aug. 21 to Jan. 31.
Universal wants to measure the impact of sales on pricing, piracy and sales of DRM-enabled tracks on iTunes, the No. 1 online music retailer.
"We're going to use our sales data from the Apple iTunes Store as the control group, a baseline for comparison," said Universal Music spokesman Peter LoFrumento.
Among the online retailers that will be selling the tracks are Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Best Buy, Rhapsody, Transworld, Passalong Networks and Puretracks, Universal said.
The retailers are expected to sell the tracks for 99 cents and in a variety of bit rates and audio formats.