Less than two weeks after settling its legal disputes with Sun, Microsoft has reached agreement with InterTrust Technologies over a long-running digital rights management (DRM) case.

As part of the deal, Microsoft will make a one-time, $440 million (£241m) payment to InterTrust to license that company's patent portfolio. InterTrust will be given the right, under Microsoft-owned patents, to design and publish DRM and security technical specifications, Microsoft said in a statement.

Digital rights management is a phrase used to describe a wide range of technology that prevents piracy of digital content, from songs and video to software programs.

The settlement resolves a three-year-old legal dispute in which InterTrust claimed that features in Microsoft's products infringed on its DRM patents. Initially focused on the Windows Media Player and electronic-book reader programs, the suit was expanded to cover components of the Windows XP operating system, Office XP suite of applications, .Net technology and Windows File Protection technology.

In July, InterTrust cleared an important legal hurdle in that case when a judge ruled in the company's favor in a key preliminary hearing, known as a "Markman hearing", which establishes the terms and definitions that can be used in a patent case.

In that hearing, US District Court Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong accepted, with little or no alteration, InterTrust's definition of key terms that were to be contested in the case, making it easier for the company to prove that Microsoft violated its patents. The ruling set the stage for a settlement, according to John Pescatore, a vice president at Gartner. "Once the preliminary ruling came out in July, it was more of a question of how much Microsoft would pay, rather than whether they would pay," he said.

With concern mounting over piracy of music and, increasingly, video on the Internet, Microsoft and other major technology vendors, such as Intel, have been looking to build so-called "trusted platforms" that integrate DRM technology with a new generation of software, processor chips and hardware, Pescatore said.

However, Microsoft's legal wrangling with InterTrust sowed the seeds of doubt about the future of Microsoft's DRM plans among large media companies and other content providers, which held off on backing a specific DRM technology, he said.

In a statement, InterTrust CEO Talal Shamoon said that the settlement with Microsoft "validates InterTrust's intellectual property portfolio as seminal to advancing DRM and trusted computing in the marketplace." InterTrust will keep working to develop DRM technology and expects to benefit from a "thriving licensing business going forward".

The settlement may clear the way for the media and technology industries to begin standardizing DRM technology across platforms, said David Schatsky, senior vice president at Jupiter Research. "The settlement gives InterTrust its due, and it allows Microsoft to focus on enriching its DRM platform," he said. However, there is still no clear DRM standard, with Microsoft and companies such as RealNetworks engaged in a "slugfest" to sway content providers and consumers to competing standards, he said.

There are still obstacles to realizing the potential of digital media, but Jupiter's research indicates that consumers recognize value in content protection and may pay for it, if it is implemented properly, Schatsky said.

Microsoft made DRM a key component of the next version of Windows, code named "Longhorn," which is due out in 2006. However, customers may see stronger software-based DRM capabilities if the company releases an interim update to Windows XP before Longhorn, Pescatore said.

Taken together with the company's recent settlement with Sun and AT&T, the deal with InterTrust may also signal a move by Redmond to clear up legal uncertainty surrounding core technology used in their products in advance of Longhorn, he said.