Retail giant Wal-Mart recently climbed aboard the protection-free wagon, saying it will sell unprotected songs for 94 cents per track and allow customers to choose between MP3s and protected Microsoft Media files.

Rhapsody is also sharpening its digital No. 2 pencil for Universal’s MP3 test, saying it will offer unprotected UMG tracks during a six-month trial period.

Through the end of January, Rhapsody will make a wide selection of Universal’s catalog available in the open MP3 format at the same price it charges for protected files – 89 cents for subscribers and 99 cents for non-subscribers.

Universal’s MP3 test is an attempt to achieve what current market conditions have failed to provide – a robust alternative to iTunes / iPod dominance.

Although several companies manufacture personal music players compatible with the Microsoft DRM technology used by several online stores, the only copy-protected files playable on iPods are those using Apple’s FairPlay DRM technology. By offering unprotected music, online music stores hope to break the iPod stranglehold on downloadable music as well as promote other, non-Apple music players in the marketplace.

So far, two major labels have started offering DRM-free files – Universal and EMI , leaving the other two majors – Sony BMG and Warner Music Group – hanging on to copy protection. Copy-free advocates could look at this as the proverbial, partially filled glass being half full, with only two labels holding out.

Of course, pessimists might look at the same DRM glass as being half empty. Especially if those doing the looking work for DRM companies.