A slew of top independent labels and trade groups have joined forces to launch Merlin, described at the MidemNet event in Cannes today (Jan. 20) as "the world's first global new-media rights licensing agency."

Accounting for almost 30% of the global recorded-music sales, the independents have created the service to function as a one-stop digital-rights licensing shop.

They are targeting the growing number of multi-market online music users, such as international Web services MySpace, YouTube and the new advertising-funded SpiralFrog.

The London-based non-profit agency is supported by high-profile independents, such as U.K.-based Beggars Group, Vital/PIAS headquartered in Brussels, U.S. hip-hop label Tommy Boy Entertainment, !K7 Records in Berlin, Naïve Records in France, plus Playground Music Scandinavia.

Recordings by hit-makers such as Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, Billy Bragg, Toni Braxton and veterans such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Waits and Deep Purple will be represented fully during negotiations for digital usage of their works.

National independent-label organizations associated with Merlin include the U.K.'s Association of Independent Music, the American Assn. of Independent Music, VUT in Germany, plus their counterparts in Brazil, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Israel and Japan.

Merlin is a sister organization to WIN, the global indies' trade body which launched at Midem 2006. It has been incubated by WIN as its "first major initiative," AIM CEO Alison Wenham commented at Midem today.

"We intend to achieve parity for copyright payment," she said. "There is currently a two-tiered system, which discriminates against indies. Merlin is a response to that."

Charles Caldas, former CEO of independent Australian distribution company Shock Entertainment Group, becomes Merlin's CEO.

While independent labels today represent more than 70% of the annual music releases worldwide, Caldas argues, many small independents do not have the same clout as the major when negotiating to have their repertoire used on international digital services.

Moreover, international online operations, such as MySpace have the laborious task of approaching thousands of independents on a market-by-market basis to acquire licensed music.

"Services seeking to license a broad range of repertoire across the independent sector have in the past faced a complex, frustrating and laborious task, potentially involving the negotiations of thousands of contracts directly with labels and their distributors and aggregators in a range of territories around the globe," Caldas tells Billboard.biz.

Organizers expect to unveil details of Merlin's first deal in the coming days.