The plans are initially likely to affect removable or portable data storage, such as Zip drives or the Flash memory cards used in MP3 players. But the standards could ultimately serve as a way to keep consumers from copying copyrighted files directly onto their hard drives, a daunting prospect for those who download music or videos from the Net though programs such as Napster or Gnutella.
Any hardware device that limits what consumers can do with their music or video files will face steep hurdles before being adopted. Previous devices with built-in copy protection have reached the market only to disappear under the weight of consumer indifference.
Current efforts are coming in two parts. An industry body that oversees hardware technologies is creating the new set of standards designed to let individual manufacturers add their own copy-protection schemes. Waiting in the wings to take advantage of the standards body's proposal is a specific technology jointly created by Intel (intc), IBM (ibm), Matsushita Electric and Toshiba (tosbf), dubbed Content Protection for Recordable Media (CPRM).
At least two big computer companies, IBM and SanDisk, are considering implementing CPRM, according to developers. If adopted widely, it and other hardware-based copy protection ideas stand a chance of easing fears among record labels and movie studios about selling content online.
"Moving to the hardware level would be a step in the direction of creating a fundamental (anti-piracy) infrastructure, which might put the content providers' fears to rest," said Steve Vonder Haar, an analyst with The Yankee Group.
The set of hardware standards is being developed by the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS), the group that settles on common rules allowing devices such as disk drives or printers to talk to each other. This group is creating generic specifications for storage devices such as disk drives or CD-ROM drives that will allow manufacturers to add a variety of specific content-protection technologies.
Those guidelines are likely to be approved at an NCITS meeting in February, members say.
But the CPRM proposal is already set to be plugged into the NCITS' framework. The four creators of the CPRM technology, known in this instance as the "4C" group, say CPRM was designed to meet the requirements of the record industry-sponsored Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).
Through a series of data-scrambling and identification schemes, the CPRM could prevent protected songs or movies from being copied using devices containing the technology. Thus, someone trying to copy a protected music file from his or her hard drive onto a Zip drive that contained the technology would be blocked from doing so. Only protected content would be blocked, however; ordinary MP3s or movie files could be transferred as usual.
IBM researcher Jeffery Lotspiech, who developed much of the CPRM specifications, says his company is interested in using it for its Microdrive portable device storage drives, and that SanDisk has expressed some interest in using it for its Flash memory, found in such products as MP3 players and digital cameras. If the companies do decide to go ahead, they could create those products using the technology as soon as summer 2001, Lotspiech said.
Some have discussed bringing the technology into computer hard drives, which would provide a much stronger barrier to downloading illegally copied songs from the Internet through programs such as Napster or Gnutella. But technical hurdles put this development a long way off, if it ever comes, the IBM researcher said.
"Fixed hard drives are a possibility, but that's unlikely at first," Lotspiech said.
"It's not impossible, but that's certainly not (this technology's) intent."
Officials at the SDMI said they're not working directly with the hardware developers on the technology. Their own broader specifications, which are designed to be used differently by multiple software and hardware companies, are still being developed.
Analysts said the CPRM plan and others like it could be an important brick in the technology industry's anti-piracy foundation. But it's far from sure that these ideas will catch on, even with the support of powerful companies.
The market is littered with hardware devices that have bombed or struggled partly because of copy-protection technology that failed to strike a chord with consumers. Circuit City's DivX digital video player is perhaps the most visible flop. But a variety of MP3 players now on the market, including Sony's Vaio Music Clip, are also struggling.
Although none of the software-based copy-protection ideas has gained significant ground, analysts say they are likely to have more market reach than hardware devices, at least in the short term.
"When you start to put these things in silicon, you're talking a year or two years ahead," The Yankee Group's Vonder Haar said. "It seems like the software guys have more flexibility to roll with changes in the marketplace."