Big guns take aim at digital copyright management

Backed by some of the biggest names in the online entertainment industry, RealNetworks Inc. on Wednesday announced the formation of the XMCL (Extensible Media Commerce Language) Initiative. The company said the initiative would define an open XML-based (Extensible Markup Language) framework for managing rights to digital media, including applications such as purchase, rental, video-on-demand and subscription services.

The list of companies that are backing the XMCL Initiative includes media-industry heavyweights like Bertelsmann AG, EMI Group PLC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (MGM) and AOL Time Warner Inc. But Microsoft Corp., which has its own digital-rights management framework built around the Windows Media Format 7 file format, is conspicuously absent from the list.

Digital rights management technologies allow copyright holders to control how movies and songs are used and distributed online. Also, the technologies can restrict the number of times a user can play a certain file, or prevent a file from being copied and passed on to other users. XMCL will simplify rights management by letting content providers define business rules in a standard way, RealNetworks said in a statement. Specific details of how XMCL would be implemented were not made available.

Microsoft and RealNetworks have long been competitors in the digital media market, with RealNetworks’ RealPlayer and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player battling for desktop dominance.

AOL’s support for RealNetworks’ media player is believed to have been a factor in the breakdown of talks over whether Microsoft would include a link to AOL’s Internet service on the desktop of its Windows XP operating system, which is slated for release later this year.

RealNetworks announced the XMCL Initiative at the same time it launched its RealSystem Media Commerce Suite, a suite of multimedia content applications. The software will eventually support XMCL and give users the ability to choose from a variety of back-end platforms, the company said.

RealSystem Media Commerce Suite can be integrated with third-party digital rights management applications, such as flexible rights management software from InterTrust Technologies Corp., the statement said. InterTrust, which has filed a patent infringement suit against Microsoft over digital-rights management in Windows Media Player, is a member of the XMCL Initiative.

The RealSystem Media Commerce Suite already has one customer. It will be used to provide security, including digital-rights management, for MusicNet, the online music subscription service backed by AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, EMI and RealNetworks that is to be launched later this year, RealNetworks said in a statement.

The members of the XMCL Initiative are Grupo Abril, Accenture Ltd., Adobe Systems Inc., Anystream Inc., America Online, Artesia Technologies Inc., Avid Technology Inc., Bertelsmann, British Telecommunications PLC’s BTopenworld, Clear Channel Communications Inc., Context Media Inc., EMI Recorded Music, eMotion Inc., IBM Corp., iFilm Corp., InterTrust, MGM, Napster Inc., RealNetworks, Rightsline Inc., Sony Corp. of America’s Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, Starz Encore Group LLC, Sun Microsystems Inc., Tiscali SpA, Viant Corp., and Virage Inc.

Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service’s Hong Kong correspondent, contributed to this report.

RealNetworks, based in Seattle, Wash., can be reached at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash., can be reached at