Electronic copyright has always been a hot issue, but after the events of the last month, it is positively sizzling. When Stephen King's e-book was hacked last month and distributed freely on the Internet, it became clear to many online content providers that if they are to make any money from Web-based products, the providers need to make sure that they can't be copied.
Contentguard offers free products using the XrML standard, which is based on a Xerox language. XrML is designed to offer information about permissions for digital content usage. If a company wants to offer a piece of content that, for example, can be read once only before being paid for, such terms and conditions could be encoded in XrML.
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The company is offering a suite of XrML-based products designed to enable content publishers to protect their content. In addition to a software development kit for application developers, the firm is also selling Contentguard Publisher.
With this tool publishers can collate the digital content and publish it, producing an XrML "label" that is held on a central server. The content is then sold through the second product, Contentguard Marketplace, which is an electronic shopfront integrated with Microsoft's Site Server Commerce Edition to facilitate electronic payment for the content.
When the customer downloads the content, it is encrypted. Accessing the label - stored on the third product, Contentguard Rights Server - enables the content to be decrypted according to the terms and conditions defined by the publisher.
The scheme, which has a number of supporters including Adobe, is largely aimed at text publishers at present, althoughContentguard promises versions for audio and video in the second half of this year. Microsoft has agreed to include it in its Windows Media player, and also says the technology will be folded into its core operating system at some point in the future.
The audio version of the technology is particularly interesting, because it will threaten existing work in this area in the form of the Secure Digital Music Initiative [SDMI]. This was announced by recording industry giants to provide a means of securing online music for distribution online.
Sanjay Swamy, director of marketing for Contentguard, admits that there will be overlaps between the two technologies, but argues that XrML is more advanced.
"SDMI is a simple specification, and I think that as it gets a little more comprehensive, it will start getting attractive," he says. "It doesn't address the whole issue of how terms and conditions are supplied."
He adds that a couple of its partners are considering adding SDMI extensions into XrML, which raises questions about the future of the SDMI standard.
XrML will be offered as a royalty-free technology specification for those companies wishing to support it at the client side. SDMI never gathered much support in the computing sector, and the easy availability of XrML technology, together with Microsoft's support for it, could sound the death knell for the SDMI standard.