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MPEG founder rallies DRM players

MPEG LA competes for attention

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After a few hours of viewing the new digital forum that MPEG committee founder Leonardo Chiariglione has set up this week, Faultline reached the same conclusion that the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reached about Earth. Mostly Harmless.

Chiariglione managed once in the 1980s to get the world to take seriously enough a single standard to compress video. He did not do it on his own, nor did he do it for himself. But he is generally thought to have brought together a sufficiently powerful group, with sufficient commitment to see through the technology and managed to get them to stay and not only agree on MPEG, but to implement it too.

Today MPEG is one of the most frequently used methods for compressing video, but it is not utterly dominant, and it also carries with it the concerns of royalty payments based mostly on fees per device, but with a remnant of discussion about fees per download still in the air, causing issues and upset.

Now Chiariglione seems set to move onto Digital Rights Management, without which video content owners, specifically the film and televisions studios of the planet, will just flatly refuse to allow their intellectual property to be widely available digitally.

Chiariglione's view is that there are two problems. Problem one is to define a global set of rights under which digital entertainment media is used and problem two is to capture the technologies that can make it be so. He doesn't want to define DRM rigidly in one fell swoop, as a particular technology, but to define methods for various systems to inter-operate and communicate.

Faultline feels that the digital media debate has polarized substantially since Chiariglione was doing his thing in the early days of MPEG. The content industry and the electronics industry then were largely benign towards each other and more or less co-operated.

Now with the addition of the vested interests of multiple communications operators, some mobile, some wired, of multiple cable operators, of substantially antagonistic blocs of electronics manufacturers and with software platform owners such as Microsoft, and substructure developers such as Intel, all wanting not only a say, but a dominant one, this job may not be so easy.

The media this week talked about Chiariglione and his pals that defined MPEG, in hallowed tones, and that's fine, his achievements are legend, but to repeat them we feel is unlikely. We have seen that MPEG21 that should have defined the partner DRM system for MPEG, is in trouble delayed, split in direction and unlikely to yield anything usable for at least another two years.

Some have said that it was too restrictive and too ambitious a technology. The idea was to create an architecture where content owning companies could afford to be magnanimous with the rights they allotted a customer, because they were confident that these rights could not be abused, with a system which constantly reported all copies, legal or otherwise to a central authority on rights.

MPEG 21 is a soup to nuts standard for content delivery and protection, with identifiers, automated content discovery, a language for digital rights and another language for transactions.

It was supposed to be designed to build any kind of delivery or rights regime a content owner requires, including one which "remembers" every time a content file is copied and reports the event to a central online authority either immediately or at a later date when next online. But MPEG 21 has not been adopted by the all powerful Digital Home Working Group which has 17 of the biggest organisations in content delivery technology ever assembled, and it is being ignored by everyone currently pushing their own DRM standard, which means it is likely to be stillborn – hence Chiariglione's effort.

Another similar effort this week is far more likely to achieve its aims and these are firmly aimed at subverting MPEG 21, regardless of what it's web site says.

This of course is more about money which is why everyone can agree so readily on this as the MPEG Licensing Authority issued a paper intended to round up all the Digital Rights Management technology patents into a patent collective, rather like the MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 collective that MPEG LA already administers.

A Digital Rights Management reference model is being cooked up, and once a bunch of patent holders come together that feel they can offer pretty much everything in DRM, they will close the doors, rationalize if and put out another block royalty deal (it hopes) to MPEG LA. Again MPEG 21 was mentioned, but it was also made clear that if a group of patent holders would come together offering something quite different from MPEG 21, then MPEG LA wants to look after its bulk royalty collection.

But already there are working DRM's in the market place from companies like Microsoft and the Sony-Philips held Intertrust and many others, and if the big film and TV production houses settle on a single standard between them, then both Chiariglione's efforts and that of MPEG LA will be as nothing.

The vote on which DRM technologies to accept is effectively the vote of about 6 companies. We should never underestimate the power of Microsoft to win a market that only needs 6 studio heads turning in order to achieve dominance. However it is unlikely that there will be a single DRM licensing regime or monopoly power for some time. More likely Chiariglione, MPEG LA, MPEG 21 and Microsoft will all get their adherents, and a number of independents as well will continue to argue about copy protection, new copy management, technology licensing and illegal copy reporting for some time to come, and market forces will, in the end, prevail after all.

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