Industry group aims to smooth online digital content distribution

A group of large media and technology companies has unveiled a specification for a technology that will distribute digital...

A group of large media and technology companies has unveiled a specification for a technology that will distribute digital content to consumers online while honouring complex contractual relationships that exist among media owners.

The group, which calls itself the Content Reference Forum (CRF), is a cross-industry standards organisation, whose members include Universal Music Group, Microsoft, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone and VeriSign .

The goal is to design a technology platform that enables media companies and other digital content owners to distribute content across different technology environments and geographical regions.

"Nobody has addressed the issues of how to make [online content distribution] effective and seamless," said Albhy Galuten, chairman of the CRF and a former advanced technical lead at Universal Music Group..

For example, a Top 10 music file link from a music fan in the US sent to a friend in France should take into account that user's language preferences. If the user does not personally own a copy of the song, they should be able to purchase it in a way that takes into account the various contractual agreements that music companies and distributors have for music sales in France.

"It's a means to resolve a content reference so that consumers can locate, buy and acquire appropriate instances of that content," he said.

Existing online music and content distribution services, such as Apple's iTunes and Roxio's Napster, amount to hostile divisions within the music industry, with companies building their own distribution systems to encourage sales of other products, such as the iPod portable music player.

"There's no reason you shouldn't have access to the first Led Zeppelin album on a Sony device, your PC or Napster," said Galuten.

The draft specifications, known as the CRF Baseline Profile v1.0, are on the group's website at http://www.crforum.org. The specifications cover formats for "content references", which the CRF defines as "data packages that uniquely identify content and the context in which it will be used". Galuten said that might include information about the consumer's specific environment.

Also explained in the specifications is a new language called the "Contracts Expression Language" (CEL), which is designed to "express and enforce contractual agreements". That will allow information in a content link to be compared against a database of contractual agreements, so companies can ensure that the appropriate compensation is paid to each "value chain player" that helped that user obtain the media.

The CRF will build on the work of other standards groups such as the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) 21 and the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis). "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Galuten said.

At the same time, CRF members did not feel that their work fit within any of those groups. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) lacked an intellectual property policy that was strong enough to satisfy CRF participants, and Oasis lacked a sufficient focus on content distribution and commerce.

In addition, group members found their efforts on the Oasis Rights Language Technical Committee stymied by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), because of what Galuten characterised as Oasis' "difficult" governance rules.

Instead, the CRF will adopt technology from MPEG, Oasis and other groups and also try to build a technical framework that "plugs into" the work of those organisations, according to Dmitry Radbel, a member of the Requirements and Architecture Working Group at the CRF and a vice president of advanced technologies at Universal Music Group.

The CRF Baseline Profile Version 1.0 will be available for review and public comment for 90 days, after which the group will incorporate suggested changes and vote on whether to make the specifications an official standard, Galuten said.

The CRF also expects to demonstrate technology based on its specifications in the near future. Examples of online reference services will soon be available, one run by Universal and the other by VeriSign. The group also expected to announce a Microsoft Media Player plug-in that will enable users to follow CRF content links to purchase or play media files with that program, Radbel said.

When asked to comment on the CRF's plans, EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz said the CRF's specifications are the foundation for a digital rights management system, about which the EFF has "deep concerns".

The Baseline Profile Version 1.0 seems to envision a system where content owners put copyright content in a locked box, then decide who gets to take it out of that box and for what reasons, he added.

The restrictions on use stipulated by the CRF's Content References may deny access to individuals who wish to use media files for parody or political expression, an exercise of civil liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution, Schultz said.

Architectures such as those proposed by the CRF may do a good job of representing the rights of content owners, but could have a "chilling effect" on speech and artistic expression by consumers who use that content under "fair use" guidelines that are typically reviewed by a judge, he said.

While standardisation and interoperability are laudable goals, the EFF is concerned that the CRF does not count any consumer advocacy groups among its members.

"We urge them to find a way ... to include a public or consumer voice in  their efforts, because clearly it's not set up for that right now," said Schultz.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service

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