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Format wars could 'confuse users'

Experts say DRM is about making money not stopping piracy

Technology firms Sony, Philips, Matsushita and Samsung are developing a common way to stop people pirating digital music and video.

The firms want to make a system that ensures files play on the hardware they make but also thwarts illegal copying.

The move could mean more confusion for consumers already faced by many different, and conflicting, content control systems, experts warned.

They say there are no guarantees the system will even prevent piracy.

Format wars

Currently many online stores wrap up downloadable files in an own-brand control system that means they can only be played on a small number of media players.

Systems that limit what people can do with the files they download are known as Digital Rights Management systems.

By setting up the alliance to work on a common control system, the firms said they hope to end this current fragmentation of file formats.

In a joint statement the firms said they wanted to let consumers enjoy "appropriately licensed video and music on any device, independent of how they originally obtained that content".

The firms hope that it will also make it harder for consumers to make illegal copies of the music, movies and other digital content they have bought.

Called the Marlin Joint Development Association, the alliance will define basic specifications that every device made by the electronics firms will conform to.

Marlin will be built on technology from rights management firm Intertrust as well as an earlier DRM system developed by a group known as the Coral Consortium.

The four firms want to make it easier to play digital files

The move is widely seen as a way for the four firms to decide their own destiny on content control systems instead of having to sign up for those being pushed by Apple and Microsoft.

Confusingly for consumers, the technology that comes out of the alliance will sit alongside the content control systems of rival firms such as Microsoft and Apple.

"In many ways the different DRM systems are akin to the different physical formats, such as Betamax and VHS, that consumers have seen in the past," said Ian Fogg, personal technology and broadband analyst at Jupiter Research.

"The difference is that it is very fragmented," he said. "It's not a two-horse race, it's a five, six, seven or even eight-horse race"

Mr Fogg said consumers had to be very careful when buying digital content to ensure that it would play on the devices they own. He said currently there were even incompatibilities within DRM families.

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