Santa Clara, Calif.-based InterTrust, which makes software that protects songs and videos from being illegally copied, said Wednesday that it is licensing its digital rights management (DRM) technology for Sanyo's new Digital Memory portable music player.
"That's obviously a big first step," said Jarvis Mak, a senior analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings. "Other MP3s will eventually have to start implementing (DRM) in order to get everything going between themselves and the industry. Whether or not it's well accepted at first doesn't matter so much as getting it out there and in place."
Although portable devices with embedded DRM technology are slowly making their way to the market, the vast majority of consumers use them to play unprotected files. That's only partly a result of convenience, since almost no copy-protected music is available that will play on them.
A cross-industry group, dubbed the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), was formed in late 1998 to develop a universal way of adding anti-piracy features to digital playback devices, but it has made little progress in setting standards.
The coalition had been wracked by disagreements between consumer electronics companies and record labels, with the result that MP3 players cannot be used with some emerging online music services, such as AOL Time Warner-backed MusicNet.
Music device makers, meanwhile, have forged ahead on their own, producing a patchwork of solutions. Sonicblue's Rio digital audio players, including the Rio 600 and the Rio 800, support DRM software offered by Microsoft, which has been battling InterTrust in a high-profile patent dispute. In addition, some powerful new machines do not support any encryption scheme, such as Apple Computer's iPod.
Still, InterTrust is aiming to position itself at the center of the digital music revolution, having already won deals with other MP3 devices, including the Compaq iPaq PA-1 Audio Player and the MPMan.
"Over time the record industry will start producing protected music, and it's important that these devices have the capability in them," said Talal Shamoon, executive vice president of business development at InterTrust. "It's a long road ahead for everybody involved, and you've got to get the infrastructure out there."