MPEG-4 on road to rights management

A streaming-media consortium sets a schedule for finalizing technical specs for MPEG-4 security and rights management--key components for the open standard's adoption.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
A streaming-media consortium set a schedule this week for finalizing technical specs for MPEG-4 security and rights management--components that are key to the open standard's adoption among content owners.

The Internet Streaming Media Alliance (ISMA)--a global group of companies including Apple Computer, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems--formulated steps to advance MPEG-4 into its final stages. MPEG-4 is a standard for compressing large audio and video files for delivery over digital multimedia platforms including Internet Protocol (IP) networks. It was developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group, the same group that designed MPEG-2 for digital television and MP3 for music files.

First, the ISMA will open for review its technical specifications for the encryption and authentication of MPEG-4-compatible files at the National Broadcasters Association annual convention in April. It plans to set the standard by the end of the second quarter. Second, it will introduce a certification program that lets companies obtain an ISMA trademark proving that their products are interoperable with the standard.

Finally, it has formed a content advisory board, which will direct the specification for digital rights management, one of the biggest hurdles to clear before content owners freely embrace the emerging standard. Members of the board have yet to be announced, but ISMA president Tom Jacobs said the group has talked with all the major Hollywood studios and the Motion Picture Association of America about the specification.

"We have gotten tremendous praise from the industry so far," said Jacobs. "These specs allow for competition in the industry, and we're satisfied and happy with what is coming along."

The Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit is pushing for the advancement of MPEG-4 technical standards at a time when proprietary systems are gaining traction among consumer-electronics manufacturers and content owners. The most formidable player, Microsoft, has pushed adoption of its latest multimedia delivery platform, Windows Media 9 Series, on PCs and beyond, recently licensing it for use on non-Windows operating systems.

Digital rights are key
The lack of digital rights management has been the chief stumbling block for open standards and the companies whose products support MPEG-4, including Apple. Paramount to content providers is the ability to protect material from piracy and build a business model around new forms of distribution. And while the industry's tendency is to lean toward support for open standards, illustrated in digital TV's endorsement of MPEG-2, without viable ways to protect content and deliver profits, content owners like on-demand movie rental site Movielink have chosen to work with Microsoft and RealNetworks for their digital-rights management technology.

ISMA's technical spec for rights protection would provide keys to the answer.

A technical standard for digital rights management "had been the component missing from any MPEG-4 content or individual players," said Ryan Jones, an analyst for The Yankee Group.

"The ISMA has been guilty of wandering about because of so many important players with pretty different goals. But having a road map is definitely important, and content security is and should be on the top of the list," Jones said.

Microsoft and RealNetworks have gathered support because they have mature products, which consumer-electronics manufacturers are looking for, along with the digital-rights management tools that content owners demand, Jones said. But, he said, Microsoft is notorious for products that are not compatible with earlier versions of software.

"These application developers are stuck with two pressures: Consumer-electronics manufacturers want format performance and don't care about content security, and on the other end, the content owners want continually improved tools, with rights management," Jones said.

Jones added that "the MPEG-4 companies recognize that this space is changing all the time and it's typical of their perspective to get it right. Is it too long? Not if they get the product right. Companies will wait."

Tom Jacobs, president of ISMA, said the group has formed a content advisory board to develop the digital rights spec with input from chief technical officers from a number of content companies. The ISMA spec is based on MPEG-4 IPMP (intellectual property management protections).

"We are specifying how you implement interoperable protection measures based on that standard, and that that protection scheme works both for streaming and for download," Jacobs said.

ISMA launched in late 2000 in an effort to accelerate the market adoption of open standards for streaming rich media over Internet Protocol. Last year, ISMA released its v 1.0 specification, which defines an end-to-end implementation agreement for streaming ISO-compliant MPEG-4 video and audio over IP. The group signed on last week four new members, Coding Technologies, ContentGuard, Nextreaming Corp. and VBrick Systems.