Computer Might Makes Digital Right?


      Bookmark and Share

As content management systems add functionality to serve the enterprise, one of the more important capabilities is digital rights management (DRM). For Web publishers with large content databases, how and whether they restrict access may be a life-or-death decision. If a company charges for content, its revenue stream is threatened by anyone duplicating its information.

If, however, direct sale of content is a small fraction of a company's overall income, an enterprise may want to provide open access to that content as a way to enhance its other income-producing services. But as we'll see, firms shouldn't equate open access with the public domain and a loss of control over content.

For major content producers—like publishers of books, magazines, newspapers, and academic journals; radio and television broadcasters; and Hollywood, of course—the last few years have been a wild and daring ride on the back of the Internet tiger. Converting assets to digital form for Web distribution has almost served as an invitation for crackers from around the world to steal more media.

Is today's threat really different from the analog thieves who have been copying music and films for years? They're just using the latest digital tools. What made Napster a great threat was not just its file-sharing, but also the audio "rippers" who captured the music. The media-friendly Macintosh, or any modest PC, can convert analog media and encode it for high-quality DVD or low-bandwidth Webcasting. Notoriously, first-run films are available on the Web in China within days of their theater release.

The holy grail of rights management is technology that embeds unalterable data in content that identifies its rightful owner, with this information remaining embedded in successive copy generations. Microsoft claims its latest Windows Media Player can prevent playback of media unless explicit licensing terms have been met. Hollywood companies like Disney, which once viewed the Redmond giant as the enemy, may encode a lot of its media in Windows Media DRM, especially if new content platforms like PDAs and cell phones incorporate enforcement chips.

Meanwhile, the draconian implications of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 continue to put more and more intellectual property (IP) under copyright and for ever-increasing times (basically, the age of Mickey Mouse plus 20 years). Post-modern philosophy likes to say "everything is text." The DMCA insists that everything is content, and copyright to boot. No one may use it without permission unless it was explicitly put into the public domain.

Since 1787 in the U.S., you have had to file a claim to copyright your content, otherwise anyone could use it. Since 1998, you have to pay a lawyer to make your content public (or use one of the 11 Creative Commons licenses). If you are a major content publisher, you also had better be prepared with DMCA agent software to process claims you are infringing on the IP of others. If you build successful content, these claims will come.

Will the powerful combination of government and business control all rights? Anti-DMCA forces like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Free and Open Source Software movements have been cheered by three recent moves to keep a lot of our collective human knowledge open and freely accessible on the Web. But it still requires DRM.

Before the dot-bomb collapse, university administrators viewed the content in their classes as worth billions of dollars, with profits to come in the distance learning revolution. MIT stunned the academic world in 2002 when it announced $100 million in funding for OpenCourseware, an initiative to put all MIT courses, professors willing, on the Web. Free for all to use, to make derivative works as needed to teach these classes in less-privileged schools, or simply for independent study, MIT has posted nearly 1,000 classes which are being used worldwide by hundreds of thousands of students.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently ruled that all scientific research funded by NIH must be made available in an open-access, Web-based journal six months after initial publication in a proprietary scientific journal. And Google plans to scan the content of leading university libraries (starting with public domain material) and make it available online for scholars everywhere.

Perhaps the most important piece of metadata that can be attached to your content is the license that describes the terms of its use. Whether it's a Creative Commons license or one crafted by Microsoft or Universal Studios lawyers, the proper role of your DRM system is to manage digitally the rights to all your intellectual property, both new digital assets and your old-fashioned physical assets.