Amid growing consumer demand for platform-neutral digital music without cumbersome copy protection, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has fired the digital rights management (DRM) ball firmly into the record labels’ court.

In a surprise open letter, titled “Thoughts on Music” and published on apple.com last night, Jobs wrote:-

“The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players.

“This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.”

Frustrations have gathered in recent months over whether the music industry should drop DRM and instead offer tracks for sale using open formats like MP3 that are not locked to particular types of devices.

Apple’s FairPlay DRM technology has come in for much of the criticism as the standard is used on the market-leading iPod and iTunes, preventing iTunes Music Store customers from playing their downloads on rival devices.

With governments in France and Norway looking at outlawing such practices, Jobs is clearly looking to duck negativity by shifting the attention onto labels themselves, proclaiming Apple is just a distributor for the DRM-laden music produced by EMI, Warner, Sony BMG and Universal.