Most of the major movie studios and a number of retailers are apparently preparing to announce support for the Open Market digital rights domain scheme proposed by Sony Pictures. It looks like a last desperate attempt to make digital rights management work to enable online distribution of movies. According to reports, Apple and the Walt Disney studios are notably not involved.

A slide attributed to a presentation by Mitch Singer, the chief technology officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment, poses the question what if DVD rolled out such that a Wal-Mart disc could only be viewed on a player from Wal-Mart and a Best Buy disc on a player from Best Buy. “People would think we were crazy,” it says.

Yet that is currently the situation with many online media stores. Ironically, it has also been true of the proprietary physical media formats that Sony has tended to adopt, from Betamax to Blu-ray.

Open Market is described as a software and services framework that will allow interoperability of various digital rights management schemes by using a neutral third party to manage registration of playback devices within a particular domain. In theory any movie purchased from any participating service provider can then be viewed on a registered compatible player.

Such initiatives have been proposed before, but consumers have generally proved to be remarkably resistant to any form of content protection or digital rights management unless it is completely transparent.

The concept was originally advanced by the Coral Consortium and found favour in the Digital Living Network Alliance.

Microsoft attempted to create its own ecosystem around its proprietary digital rights management, but its security has been repeatedly compromised and appears to be falling out of favour with many media owners.

Apple has come closest to making this model work with its own Fairplay scheme, but enabling an open market for digital rights management remains difficult, to say the least.

The key to enabling interoperability between different digital rights management schemes lies in entitlement tokens that can be exchanged independently. The issue is that it still relies upon co-operation between competitors that may have different business models or priorities. It also remains open to exploitation of any vulnerability in the distributed system.

Many observers have suggested that digital rights management is doomed to failure. The music industry is finally coming to terms with this reality, having previously produced and profited profusely from physical products that are entirely free of any technical copy restrictions. It continues to confuse illicit copying by consumers with organised piracy and generally fails to recognise both as forms of competition.

Figures from the Recording Industry Association of America show that retail music sales in the United States were down to around $10 billion in 2007 from around $13 billion a decade ago, but that could be due to many factors. Sales of compact discs still account for over 80% of that value, with digital downloads only representing around 12%.

The movie studios are desperate to avoid the same fate as the recorded music industry, but nevertheless seem intent on pursuing the same path. The lesson from the experience of the record business is that people will pay for choice and convenience, providing the price is right, but that they will avoid paying and go elsewhere unless it is an easy and enjoyable experience. Some leakage is inevitable. Think of it as promotion.