The move is recognition of a dawning new era in digital music, in which pay-per-song services are beginning to gain ground on the anarchic file-swapping networks and in which CDs themselves may ultimately be overtaken by digital downloads.
The first era in Internet audio belonged undeniably to MP3, an audio standard codified by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) a dozen years ago. Thomson and Fraunhofer, the German companies that hold patents in the MP3 technology, have long been collecting royalties from software and hardware companies that use the format.
But the same features that made MP3 attractive to tens of millions of ordinary computer users made the big record labels deeply suspicious of the format. For years, they've been looking for a digital song format that would include tools to prevent people from making unauthorised copies or swapping tunes on networks such as Kazaa.
Microsoft, with its Windows Media and associated digital rights management technology, has been one big beneficiary of that, with its format used in Napster, Musicmatch and other song stores and bundled on physical CDs. Apple's own Fairplay copy-protection tools have also won the big record labels' approval and form the heart of the company's iTunes Music Store.
Thomson and Fraunhofer's rights management technology will be based in large part on open standards the MPEG group and the Open Mobile Alliance are adopting, Caldwell said. The companies will provide free use of the copy protection technology to anyone who licenses the MP3 format, he said.
As with any other digital rights management format, the technology will have to be supported by software players and chipmakers before devices are able to play songs protected by it. The companies are in talks with chip manufacturers and music distribution services now, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said he expected to see devices and services supporting the protected MP3 format by the end of 2004. The plans were first reported by the Los Angeles Times.