The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has announced a project to develop a worldwide standardised system for identifying digital music files so that the owner of the recording's copyright can easily track its use and collect royalties.

The project will set the requirements for a new identification system for music and other sound recordings that is fully compatible with existing identification systems, says Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel of the RIAA.

To manage the project, the RIAA has selected UK-based Rightscom, a consultancy that has designed and developed identification systems in the past.

Sherman likens the system to the bar codes that are ubiquitous on merchandise bought in stores.

But instead of appearing in print on the package, the code would be embedded in the digital content.

It would include any limitations on the use of the music, such as an expiration in a set number of days.

The code would present a range of opportunities for offering music over the Internet in different ways, says Sherman.

For instance, a user might want to buy one-time access to a database of 100 songs that can be played during a party.

"The idea would be that you would have encoded in the header of the file the information that rights holders would need to track the royalty payments for those uses."

He adds, "You just need to have a standardised way of doing that."

The project will seek to involve other music industry players, including distributors and retailers.

The RIAA claims a standardised identification system for sound recordings would accelerate the digital delivery of music on the Internet.

The association, meanwhile, remains embroiled in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster, the file-sharing company that allows Internet users to find and download digital music from other Napster users' PCs.

The standard that the RIAA hopes to develop would identify files being exchanged through file-sharing technologies, even free ones such as Napster, says Sherman. "This is going to be a better system."

The RIAA hopes the standardised system will be finished by the middle of next year.