In the latest effort to respond to the threat from online piracy, a group of large media and technology companies today unveiled a new specification for a technology that will distribute online digital content to consumers while honouring complex contractual relationships that exist among media owners.

The group, which calls itself the CRF (Content Reference Forum), is a new, cross-industry standards organisation that boasts Universal Music Group, Microsoft, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) and VeriSign among its members.

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, according to Albhy Galuten, chairman of the CRF and a former advanced technical lead at Universal Music Group.

"Nobody has addressed the issues of how to make (online content distribution) effective and seamless," he said.

For example, a Top 10 music file link from a music fan in the US that is sent to a friend in France should take into account that user's language preferences. Also, 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, Galuten said.

Current online music and content distribution services, such as Apple's iTunes and Roxio's Napster, amount to a balkanisation of the music industry, with companies building their own distribution systems to encourage sales of other products, such as the iPod portable music player, Galuten said.

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

The draft specifications, known as the CRF Baseline Profile 1.0, were published for public comment today on the group's website. 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." That might include information about the consumer's specific environment, Galuten said.

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

CRF Baseline Profile 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.

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Content Reference Forum