In a joint press conference with Apple, the label announced it will sell its music on iTunes without any digital rights management attachments, thus going against the major label belief that digital downloads must be protected from unauthorized copying and distribution.

This doesn’t mean EMI endorses unlimited copying and file-sharing. Instead, it signifies that at least one major label believes that DRM-wrapped digital downloads are hurting business, and more people will buy legal downloads if those songs come with no technological strings attached. Plus, by dropping DRM, EMI ensures that its online music will play on every device, something proprietary copy-protection technologies currently prevent.

Despite rumors leading up to the press conference, music from The Beatles is not included in the arrangement. However, EMI Chief Executive Eric Nicoli did say his company was “working on it.”

The EMI DRM-free downloads on iTunes will be twice the sound quality and cost $1.29 per track, 30 cents more than the 99 cent, copy-protected songs the online music store is already offering. Customers having already purchased the copy-protected songs can buy the “new-and-improved” tracks for 30 cents per song. Complete EMI album purchases on iTunes will be the DRM-free, higher quality tracks with no change in price.

The DRM-less tracks sold on iTunes will still be in the AAC format Apple uses for all its online music. However, EMI indicated that the protection-free deal is not limited to iTunes, and other online stores striking similar agreements could end up offering the format of their choice, including MP3 and WMA.

Up until now, the major record labels had been united in insisting that online music carry some form of digital rights management protection. There is no indication that the other three labels – Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony BMG might follow EMI’s lead. Earlier this year Apple CEO Steve Jobs ticked off more than a few label executives when he posted his “Thoughts On Music” on his company’s Web Site decrying the use of DRM, claiming copy protection technology hindered online music sales.

And he may have had a point. In his essay, Jobs argued that it made no sense to sell copy protected music online when the same music was sold on CDs without any protection. Plus, when you consider that the original file-sharing piracy debacle began with music ripped from CDs, the claim that online music must carry some kind of anti-copying protection seems even less valid.

Of course, Jobs’ promotion of dropping DRM is more than just about selling more music. Apple is facing possible antitrust action from more than one European country over the proprietary DRM the company uses on iTunes. If Apple can eliminate DRM, it might very well eliminate some future legal problems.

But only time will tell if the other labels re-think their own DRM attitudes. Lately, copy protection technology has been blamed for less than robust online music sales. But if EMI online sales go up, you can bet the other labels may soon change their tune.

“Our goal is to give consumers the best possible music experience,” EMI’s Nicoli said. “By providing DRM-free downloads, we aim to address the lack of inter-operability which is frustrating for many music fans. We believe that offering consumers the opportunity to buy higher quality tracks and listen to them on the device or platform of their choice will boost sales of digital music.”