The Content Reference Forum is hoping to create a kind of intelligent file that can be distributed through file-sharing networks like Kazaa, Web pages, e-mail or almost anywhere else online.
Instead of containing a song or movie itself, the file would set up a process that automatically delivers files in the right format and potentially triggers an automatic payment system that could be changed moment to moment by the content distributor.
"This would essentially say, if you have the rights to this piece of content, we don't care what kind of device you're using," said Albhy Galuten, chairman of the new group and former senior vice president for advanced technology at Universal Music. "It would say, tell me the device, and we'll send you the correct file."
The group is hoping to make online content distribution more flexible and help break downand copy-protection technologies. Currently, people who send files through file-trading networks, or via e-mail or instant messaging, are largely locked in to sending a specific file that may not be readable by people who lack the appropriate software or hardware.
Most entertainment content sold online is encoded in proprietary formats and wrapped in anticopying technologies such as Microsoft's Windows Media or Apple Computer's FairPlay. That means that someone who wants to share a Windows Media-encoded song purchased through Napster's online song store can't share it with someone who wants to buy it and play it on an Apple iPod, for example.
Under the new technology, people would share the "Content Reference" file instead, which would point them to authorized versions of the content that would automatically fit whatever device or computer software the recipient is using.
Other plans for encouraging people to share authorized content though file-sharing networks are already in place. Altnet, a content distribution system that plugs in to the Kazaa network, offers copy-protected games, music and movies to file sharers, who can download the authorized versions and pay for them instead of seeking free versions. The company has been unsuccessful in winning support from major music labels or movie studios, however.
The Content Reference project was started by Galuten and others while he was at Universal in an effort to create a content distribution system more flexible than what exists today. The group's membership currently includes Microsoft, ContentGuard, VeriSign, Macrovision, ARM and NTT. Galuten said he expects other companies to join over time.
The forum said it will act as a standards group similar to the World Wide Web Consortium or the Motion Picture Experts Group. It has drawn on technology standards developed by both, but has added new technology specifications for its specific purposes, Galuten said.
The initial version of the Content Reference specifications are available at the forum's Web site. A test version of the technology will be operating in early 2004, Galuten said.