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Digital rights company snags patent

ContentGuard receives a patent for a "digital ticket" that lets copyright holders distribute digital content such as music, video, e-books and images.

    Digital rights management company ContentGuard said Friday it has received a patent for a "digital ticket," which lets copyright holders distribute and track people's access to digital goods such as music, video, e-books and images.

    Bethesda, Md.-based ContentGuard, which is backed by Xerox and Microsoft, said the digital ticket is similar to the way a ticket in the physical world allows people to gain access to a concert or a baseball game. With a digital ticket, people can view an e-book or listen to music for a specific number of times without being locked down to a single device.

    ContentGuard said the digital ticket is a set of tamper-resistant codes that are put in a computer or embedded onto cell phone chips or plastic cards similar to credit cards. The code validates whether a person has certain rights to access specific digital content.

    The patent comes as companies scramble to lay claim to a technology that people believe is crucial to the distribution of digital services such as online music-subscription services. Digimarc, which specializes in the authentication of digital or analog documents, this week received its 25th patent, which covers techniques for embedding digital watermarks into video and audio content.

    Meanwhile, InterTrust Technologies and Microsoft are embroiled in a legal dispute over anti-piracy technology. Last month, InterTrust received a new patent for a method of transferring digital content that the company will use in its lawsuit against Microsoft.

    Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said there are many nuances in protecting and transferring content on the Web. ContentGuard's digital ticket, he said, is simply one of them.

    "There's nothing kind of mind-blowing or shockingly original about the ContentGuard strategy," Sinnreich said. "It's just that it differs enough from other players' strategies to warrant its own patent."

    Launched last year as a spinoff of Xerox, ContentGuard has been aiming to take a foothold in the digital rights management arena. Microsoft has already licensed ContentGuard's technology and has used some of it in the software giant's e-book technology. ContentGuard's technology is also expected to enhance future releases of Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

    Michael Miron, chief executive of ContentGuard, said the company plans to license its patent to other interested parties. He said one way the digital ticket differs from other DRM technologies is that it does not restrict people to a particular system, but rather provides interoperability between devices.

    "It enhances flexibility by extending it to the offline world and allowing you to take the rights with you, which allows for greater interoperability," Miron said.

    Sinnreich said the structure of the media supply chain down the road is "up in the air right now," and it remains to be seen what the final system for delivering information will be.

    "There are dozens or hundreds of companies out there that have intellectual property that may or may not be necessary for enabling online music businesses in the long run," he said. "It's kind of like having a lottery ticket--there's a chance that if the courts support your patent claim and your way of doing things becomes the norm, then your company will wind up having a steady source of revenue from intellectual property."