DRM technology has pretty much traveled hand-in-hand with download sales, at least for the major labels. No matter if you buy a tune from iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody or any of the other online stores dealing in major label content, the songs come with restrictions as to how many copies you can make.

Which was all well and good back in the pre-iTunes days, when the labels were mulling over how to sell their stuff online without getting ripped off. But DRM technology has resulted in unexpected consequences.

It’s because of DRM that tracks purchased from iTunes play only on iPods. What’s more, major label music purchased from other online stores will not play on iPods. If you can picture a world where compact discs only play on specific players, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what DRM has wrought.

But there have been signs that the labels have been rethinking the entire DRM scenario. Last year Sony BMG and EMI agreed to MP3 “experiments” on Yahoo that resulted in the Web portal offering a short list of tracks by artists like Norah Jones and Relient K in MP3 format.

More recently there have been rumblings from the global music trade fair behemoth known as Midem that some, if not all, of the labels are considering selling tracks online sans any kind of copy protection.

The New York Times reported that executives at several major technology firms claimed at least one major record company could start selling unrestricted MP3s in the coming months.

Along with the schizoid compatibility issues of online tracks not playing on all devices, there’s another reason the labels may be taking a second look at MP3s – online sales. Although download sales for 2006 were up compared to the previous year, they did not adequately compensate for the drop in physical CD sales.

Of course, music piracy was an oft-mentioned reason, but the labels couldn’t ignore the fact that the online marketplace has yet to produce a one-size-fits-all format where all tracks will play on all devices.

And then there’s iTunes, which many record company execs feel has a stranglehold on online sales. With Apple’s online music store accounting for the lion’s share of online music purchases, many consumers can’t help but feel that it’s an iTunes / iPod world. A world where other devices and DRM formats are merely players. Kind of like the old Betamax / VHS hassle in the early days of home video.

But it’s not just the labels that are having problems with proprietary DRM technology.

Consumer groups in Germany and France have joined a Nordic-led drive to force Apple to make its iTunes inventory compatible with competing devices.

Last summer consumer groups in Norway, Denmark and Sweden charged that Apple’s proprietary DRM was violating copyright laws in their countries. Now that organizations representing consumer rights in France and Germany have climbed on board, the combined efforts might represent a European juggernaut in the making. One that Apple will not be able to ignore.

“This is important because Germany and France are European giants,” said Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman Bjoern Erik Thon. “Germany, in particular is a big market for digital music.”

Apple said the company is “aware of the concerns” voiced by the European consumer agencies and that it is “looking forward to resolving those issues as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, both France and Norway have enacted legislation to force Apple to provide cross-compatibility, with Norway giving the House Of Jobs until March of this year to comply.

But the European consumer organizations’ concerns over Apple’s proprietary DRM technology doesn’t necessarily mean the groups favor a non-restrictive file format like MP3.

They’re only calling for file compatibility across all platforms. If Apple was to license the DRM technology used on iTunes, or if the other major DRM player, Microsoft, was to somehow work a deal where its WMA files would play on iPods, that might result in a situation where everybody is happy. So don’t count DRM out. At least not yet.

But don’t expect things to stay the same. If online commerce has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is forever.