Wondering why there's so much hubbub over The Beatles selling all their albums on a USB drive? Because deep down inside, everyone's hoping that someday, the Beatles' catalog will come to Apple's iTunes (and maybe Amazon, too). From what I see, though, this is just wishful thinking, and if anything, we're further from an Apple-Beatles agreement than ever.
In fairness to the dreamers, The Beatles' USB offering is significant. Apple Corps and EMI have never sold the band's music in digital file formats before, and the USB drive will have songs in both FLAC and MP3 formats. Looking at what The Beatles' camp has said on the iTunes issue, however, shows that they're probably no closer to an agreement than last year, when Paul McCartney reportedly signed a $400 million deal to make the songs available.
A big sticking point for McCartney appears to be piracy, and how to deal with it. Speaking to The Guardian in September, McCartney said that if an EMI employee takes the digital music home and throws it on the Internet, "we would have the right to say, 'Now you recompense us for that.' And they're scared of that."
There have been disputes over money as well. In a March interview with Blender, George Harrison's son Dhani said "[Apple CEO Steve Jobs] says that a download is worth 99 cents, and we disagree." Harrison hinted that The Beatles and surviving family could open their own download store instead.
The problem with the USB offering is that it doesn't solve the issues raised by Harrison or McCartney. I'm not sure what kind of digital rights management is imposed on the drive's FLAC and MP3 files, but I'm guessing it's pretty locked down, with the Beatles store mentioning a "specially designed Flash interface" for the experience. Tracks on iTunes, by comparison, are DRM-free.
Also, the USB drive is a step towards Dhani Harrison's suggestion of selling directly to consumers. The drives are being sold on a limited run, but it could set the stage for a full-blown MP3 store on The Beatles' Web site, on The Beatles' terms.
If there's any hope to see The Beatles on iTunes, I think it's in "Cocktail," Apple's plan to save the full album by selling them whole with extra features. A package like this could be more enticing to The Beatles than naked MP3s, especially if there's more DRM involved.
But "Cocktail" is just a rumor, and the most optimistic recent news I could find is Yoko Ono's claim that Beatles songs would come to iTunes on September 9 of this year. I guess music fans aren't the only ones dreaming.