At issue is a set of technologies aimed at protecting music and other content from being indiscriminately copied after being sold through mobile phone networks, a critical component of the new content services if record labels and movie studios are to sign on.
For more than a year, the mobile industry has been converging on a standard set of antipiracy technologies, which could help avoid the fragmentation that separates Microsoft and Apple Computer products in the PC world. But now patent holders including Sony and others have put a price tag on that technology, and some of the biggest phone companies say it's too expensive.
Patent holders have put a price tag on copy-protection standards for the mobile phone content business, and some of the biggest phone companies say it's too expensive.
The carriers have threatened to look elsewhere, a development that could help rival copy-protection developers such as Microsoft.
The carriers have threatened to look elsewhere--a development that could help rival copy-protection developers such as Microsoft--even if it slows down the release of their services and leads to incompatible products.
"It's disappointing that the (licensing group) has not taken onboard our previous concerns," Frank Boulben, executive vice president of British cell phone company Orange, said in a statement released by carriers Wednesday. "The current...proposals will lead to fragmentation owing to unacceptability, and critically delay launches of these new mobile services."
The rights-management component is an obscure but critical piece of a business that is attracting millions of dollars of investment in Asia and Europe, and is likely to launch in the United States later this year. Cell phone carriers that have spent billions on wireless high-speed data spectrum are eager to recoup their expenditure, and are turning to music and video downloads as their most promising early services.
Already a handful of mobile download services similar to Apple's iTunes Store have launched overseas. Vodafone has, with the help of France's Musiwave. Germany's T-Mobile is offering short versions of songs, while Japan's KDDI has predicted that music downloads will add $70 million to its annual bottom line in just a few years.
The start-ups that power these services have used a variety of technologies to protect their content. Some, like Seattle-based Melodeo, use their own digital rights management. Others are using technology based on the standards developed by the Open Mobile Alliance group over the past several years.
How much is too much?
The OMA technology is now turning out to be a hurdle, however. As with other standards, the underlying technology is actually owned by other companies, in this case Sony, ContentGuard Holdings, InterTrust Technologies, Matsushita Electric Industrial and Koninklijke Philips Electronics.
A central body called MPEG LA is handling the overall licenses for those companies, as it is for other similar patent groups. In January, that group suggested that companies that want a license should