Is Marlin the best kept secret in tech?

Pioneer's online SyncTV service looks innocent enough, but that Marlin DRM is lurking in there somewhere

A brand new technology is coming to gadgets from Samsung, Sony and others next year - but they may not want to talk about it. The reason? The technology is a new digital rights management system called Marlin that could dominate the CE and PC industries for years to come. No wonder it wants to remain under the radar.

It's not hard to see why: public attitudes to DRM have hardened in the last couple of years following a string of high profile disasters from Sony's root kit farrago to the restrictions imposed on iPod owners by Apple's FairPlay system.

Marlin however promises to be entirely different. It's the result of a joint effort between Samsung, Sony, Philips, Panasonic and InterTrust, and promises to kill off the old 'restrictive DRM' models we've had to put up with in the past. But what does that mean?

Talal Shamoon of InterTrust told that Marlin is 'domain-centric', that is it enables people living in the same house to share content easily and freely with each other, now matter where it comes from, or what on kind of device it's going to be played back on.

Nowhere is safe

It's also been designed from the get-go to be cross-platform - so it'll work on everything from Macs to PCs, plasma TVs to DVD recorders. And the first devices that use it will appear within the three to nine months.

Marlin then throws the platform and usage model wide open. It's protective of copyrighted content, but not stupidly so. Pioneer's new SyncTV service, for example, uses Marlin for its content, but that content can be viewed on up to 10 different portable devices and five different domestic ones. That's very different from the one-content-one-format model we've been theoretically stuck with until now.

Why all the secrecy?

Marlin's launch has been deliberately low-key because the first platforms to use it - including SyncTV - are just getting started. Plus the Marlin community hasn't yet decided whether software, services and hardware will even carry DRM branding.

"There will be situations were we will have interoperability branding" Shamoon says, "but there's nothing in the standard yet.

"The best DRMs are designed not be seen, to leave out the back of the building like a superhero, like Superman."

The other reason for Marlin's lack of profile is that DRM just isn't that big a deal to most people:

"Imagine if we went in to business. You wouldn't open a clothes shop and then advertise it saying that you've got the best burglar alarm and cash register in town, would you? You'd talk about how great the clothes are," Shamoon says.

iPod under threat?

However the arrival - and eventual ubiquity - of Marlin may not be great news for a certain supplier of iPods:

"Apple has had a really good DRM system with iTunes, but it also likes to work in a silo. It makes the point not to interoperate. As the market evolves, other devices with Marlin will come along until there really will be an economy around it.

"At that point choosing Apple's DRM will be a lifestyle decision, and that will become a losing proposition," Shamoon says. has contacted Sony, Samsung, Pioneer and Philips about how they plan to use Marlin. We're still waiting for their responses.