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Group takes nonstandard try at antipiracy standard

Frustrated by the lack of a copy protection standard that might help the digital content business reach the mainstream, MPEG LA is taking matters into its own hands.

Frustrated by the lack of a copy protection standard that might help the digital content business reach the mainstream, a high-profile digital media group is taking matters into its own hands.

MPEG LA (MPEG Licensing Association), a group of companies that hold patent rights that are related to the MPEG 4 audio and video standard, has created its own description of what features it thinks that digital rights management (DRM) technology should include. It's asking patent holders who think that their technologies might fit the bill to submit them for review. And it's serving as a licensing clearinghouse to make elements of those technologies readily available to other developers and manufacturers.

The group isn't trying to recreate copy protection products such as those sold by Microsoft or IBM--but it hopes to simplify the legal, technological and licensing chaos that has helped keep an antipiracy standard from evolving.

"Without a strong digital rights management system, digital content providers have limitations on their ability--and really their desire--to provide content," Lawrence Horn, spokesman for MPEG LA, said Thursday. "This is our effort to give people some level of comfort."

The group's announcement marks an end run around traditional standards-setting practices, reflecting the media community's continuing impatience for the unsettled state of the copy protection business.

During the past few years, Microsoft's products have risen to the point of a near-standard in the nascent business of digital film and music distribution, aided by the financial collapse of several potential rivals. But media companies aren't ready to cede full control of the market to a single company, particularly one as powerful as Microsoft.

As a result, they've continued experimenting with Microsoft and other rivals while watching closely for signs of open standards such as those created under the auspices of the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). To date, that body's recommendations have lacked copy protection components, but it is now slowly starting to address the issue.

MPEG LA isn't waiting, though.

The group's description of an acceptable DRM technology isn't intended as a traditional standard. It hasn't been vetted over time by panels of industry experts. It doesn't describe how to do or build anything specific. It just provides a "high level" outline of the features MPEG LA thinks should be included in an average acceptable content protection system.

The group is asking any company that has patented copy protection technologies to submit them. If the licensing coalition thinks that a given technology fits the description, the technology will be placed, with the patent holder's permission, on a list of patents that can be licensed all at once. The list will be made available to people or companies that want to create their own devices or software that include an element of content protection. MPEG LA will simply provide the list of all the DRM technologies available, with a listed price, and serve as a one-stop shop for anyone who's interested.

If Samsung, for example, wanted to build a new mobile video player that included DRM support, it could come directly to MPEG LA for the licenses it needed instead of researching and licensing a myriad of others' patents.

If enough companies in the business join the coalition, MPEG LA's generic description may even take on some of the influence of a standard, driving what people expect from DRM without ever having gone through the drawn-out standards process, industry insiders say.

At least a few digital media companies are excited about the idea.

"I believe this will remove the roadblock to DRM implementations," said Talal Shamoon, CEO of InterTrust Technologies, a company that owns large numbers of rights-management patents. "Once you have nondiscriminatory published rates--history teaches (that) this is a market-enabling thing to do."

However, the effort could rise or fall on the participation of larger companies such as Microsoft. InterTrust is suing Microsoft, contending that virtually all of the software giant's content protection technologies violate its patents. But Microsoft's market position would clearly make it a key player in any central DRM clearinghouse, regardless of the outcome of the suit.

MPEG LA's Horn said the clearinghouse could launch even with big holes in its portfolio, although that would be less convenient for potential customers. A Microsoft representative had no immediate comment on the MPEG LA plan.