Home electronics giants launch antipiracy strategy

Taking aim at Microsoft and Apple, consumer electronics companies say they'll build their own copy protection system.

A group of big consumer technology companies have formed a new coalition aimed at developing a standard set of antipiracy tools for home electronics products.

The new group, called the Marlin Joint Development Association, is aimed at ensuring that copy-protected content such as music or videos can play on any kind of consumer electronics device, no matter which manufacturer. The group includes Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic), Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics and Sony, as well as digital-rights management company Intertrust Technologies.

With that goal in mind, the group's development is aimed squarely at Apple Computer and Microsoft, each of which use their proprietary digital-rights management (DRM) technologies for content distributed in their own media formats. That separation, which makes some content incompatible with some hardware--songs purchased at Microsoft's online music store can't easily be played on Apple's iPod, for example--is leading to consumer confusion, the Marlin companies say.

"The consumer electronics guys understand their customers better than anyone in this game," said Intertrust Chief Executive Talal Shamoon, whose company is helping provide Marlin's underlying technology. "TVs and DVD players work really well. This is an attempt to come up with a consumer electronics DRM that is tailored to those modes."

The rights management debate, while going on largely outside the public eye, could help define the winners and losers in the consumer electronics landscape for years to come.

Apple and Microsoft, neither of which is included in the Marlin group, each have a large stake in seeing their rights-management tools become more widely used.

Apple has resisted licensing its digital-music copy-protection technology as long as its iPod and iTunes Music Store are far more popular than any of their respective rivals. That has largely kept iPod users from shopping at any non-Apple digital music store.

In a different bid for universality, Microsoft does license its rights-management tools to anyone who asks in hopes that its Windows Media audio and video formats will become more widely used.

That jockeying for position among technology companies has frustrated record labels, which have appealed to Apple and others to ensure that digital music can be as widely used--without being limited to certain brands of devices--as a CD.

The Marlin group draws from the work of a previously formed coalition called the Coral Consortium, with much the same membership. That group is aimed at creating specifications that let different rights-management systems talk to each other, a little like a translator between native speakers of different languages.

Marlin will instead develop its own rights-management system, a rival to the technology used by Microsoft or Apple. It will support a variety of forms, ranging from cell phones to digital music players to TiVo-like video recorders, the group said.

The Marlin system could be wrapped around a standard audio or video format, such as the Advanced Audio Coding or MPEG AVC video format, Shamoon said. It will also draw on the Coral work, so that it will be compatible with any other system using that group's interoperability techniques.

The group will ultimately produce specifications that will let its own members and other companies build compatible systems. It will also create a site with source code that companies can use to jump-start their own development projects.

The Marlin effort is starting considerably behind Apple and Microsoft, whose formats are widely used in the market already. But if the Marlin technology is built consistently into the products of four of the biggest consumer electronics devices, it could shift the market substantially, analysts say.

Nevertheless, the addition of a yet another flavor of copy-protection technologies risks alienating consumers still further, GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire said.

"There is potential there. They all have lots of resources," McGuire said. "But coordinating their efforts, and creating something that consumers will actually accept, is something else."