The identification would be a digital equivalent of the common universal price code (UPC), or bar code, that marks virtually every physical product sold in stores, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said.
The marks would be used to identify precisely a given file's song and artist and determine how royalties from downloads should be distributed. But they also could be used to delineate a track's use. If, for instance, a listener downloaded the song for a 30-day trial period instead of buying it outright, this information could be included in the identifying mark.
"This is really a tool that will be a part of the infrastructure of digital commerce," said Cary Sherman, the RIAA's senior executive vice president. "This is how labels would identify what files are going out and for what purpose."
The lack of a digital bar code equivalent is one of several components that have held up major labels' move into online music sales. But it's far from a silver bullet. The quest to secure songs against piracy, or against widespread copying and distribution through services such as Napster, has proven to be a more substantial barrier.
Protecting songs against unauthorized copying will take sophisticated digital rights management tools, none of which have yet proved to be infallible. The industry-backed Secure Digital Music Initiative is one leading effort to produce protected music, but it has struggled against outside criticism and internal differences.
The bar code identification system could be used in conjunction with a digital rights management system--even though it isn't primarily intended as a way to protect songs, Sherman said. Nevertheless, if it proves to be difficult to tamper with, the system could be a potential way of identifying authorized and unauthorized songs being traded through services such as Napster.
The RIAA said it will work with a U.K.-based consulting house, Rightscom, to manage the project.