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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Electronic Copyright Management Systems: Dream, Nightmare or Reality?

Graham P Cornish



The widespread use of electronic technology to produce, store, manipulate and distribute information of all kinds is one of the great achievements of the information age. The arrival of digital technologies for handling text, sound and visual images has made the possibilities almost limitless. Not only can material be manipulated within its own form but multimedia packages can be created through information from different sources being downloaded, copied, edited and repackaged to suit the individual user or to generate completely new products which can be made available on the open information market.

The threats

However, the sky is rarely completely blue and one of the biggest clouds on the digital horizon is the problem of access and protection. Each piece of material which is made available in digital form, as well as all those that are in more conventional formats, contains intellectual property created by, and belonging to, a variety of creators. A straightforward text may contain contributions by many different authors; it may be illustrated with visual images which are separately owned; a sound recording will contain music, words and arrangements as well as performing rights for the musicians and a video recording may contain all these, plus rights for dancers or actors. The intellectual property industry is big business and cannot afford to allow its products to be copied, repackaged , pirated or distributed without ensuring adequate economic compensation. The very fact that the content can be copied so easily is itself a major problem. At the same time the quality of copies made is such that it is impossible to know what generation a copy actually is. When ease and quality combine then this is a recipe for unauthorised copying, pirating and use which must be controlled.

The major players

Authors are the primary creators of intellectual property and without them there would be no copyright to protect. For the purposes of copyright protection in a document supply environment it is important to distinguish between authors of different kinds of material.

The second important player is the publisher who takes the intellectual property and makes it generally available. Many publishers would claim that he most expensive aspect of preparing text for publication is deciding what should be published. Production and distribution are comparatively simple operations: the real and expensive problems are decision-making as to the commercial viability of a monograph or directory or the value of a journal article.

Publishers divide broadly into three groups: academic and learned society publishers whose primary aim is to disseminate information and, only incidentally, generate income; commercial publishers who specialise in academic, scholarly or educational publications and are primarily concerned with generating income but do so in collaboration with the academic community; and commercial publishers wh o produce materials mainly in the recreational field in the broadest sense. These three groups have very different interests in the management of copyright protection.

Most, although not all, publishers use distribution mechanisms to make their products available. Distributors are best described as "information intermediaries". They do not create intellectual property themselves nor do they directly publish the expression of it. Their role is to act as an intermediary between the producer (publisher) and the users of the published information.

Distributors can be divided broadly into booksellers, subscription agents, database hosts, libraries and information brokers. Of these groups, booksellers rarely fulfil the role of document delivery as they concentrate on delivering original material, not copies of it. But in the other cases the distinctions are becoming more and more unclear. Increasingly subscription agents are becoming invol ved in direct document delivery systems. At the same time, database hosts, although mainly concerned to provide a mechanism through which other intellectual-property owners can distribute their electronic data, are continuing to build links with document suppliers of many kinds. Hosts usually negotiate fees and conditions between both originators and users, whether intermediaries or end-users. However, libraries are information intermediaries because they collect and store large quantities of published material which they make available to their readers (end-users) in a form which enables them to exploit such materials for a wide range of purposes. Traditionally, libraries have been passive information intermediaries, that is, they have collected and stored information and org anised it in a meaningful way but have left their end-users to exploit it as they saw fit. Increasingly, libraries are becoming active information intermediaries, providing detailed and analytical guides to the literature, producing information bulletins, current awareness services and proactive document delivery systems based on profiles of individuals interests and needs, through SDI (Selectiv e Dissemination of Information) services. More recently, librarians have worked to make the material in their collections much more accessible and publicise what they have. The growth of such as CASIAS (Current Awareness Services Individual Article Supply) shows how much this role has changed already.

In the present world economic climate libraries are becoming much more commercial and are beginning to exploit their collections for financial gain rather than simply for the benefit of their readers. In addition to conventional libraries there are several organisations throughout the world which exist almost exclusively to offer document delivery services either to individuals or to other librar ies. These organisations specialise in document delivery using conventional library collections and the rapid increase in their business has put great pressure on the publishing industry to develop appropriate mechanisms to allow this considerable business to continue and increase in response to world-wide demand whilst ensuring protection of publishers' and authors' rights. Closely allied to the library but distinct from it, is the Information broker who is usually a commercial enterprise which will identify the information needs of individuals and institutions and attempt to meet these needs through a range of services including tailored information packages, alerting services, SDI services and document delivery. Such organisations do not, as a rule, have collections of literature them selves but rely on libraries or other document suppliers for the individual items they have themselves identified for their clients (end-users). As their role is both to exploit for commercial gain and exploit materials for which they have not themselves paid any contribution to the publisher/author, this area is a primary one developing electronic copyright management systems.


End-users are the primary reason that any document is published. Publishing broadly means making available to the public and it is the reading public to which most publishing is aimed. End-users clearly need or want published material for a range of purposes including leisure, general information for daily life, education at all levels, intellectual research and industrial or commercial exploi tation. Until recently, few end-users have had direct access to large quantities of published material except through an intermediary such as a library, but with the increasing use of online publishing this pattern is changing rapidly and end-users can now obtain access to electronic databases through terminals in libraries, research departments or directly in their homes.

The Needs

In the current technological climate both creators and users of intellectual property have certain basic needs which must be satisfied if document supply systems are to fulfil their increasingly complex role. Although it would be easy to categorise the needs of owners as protection and those of users as access, this is a very simplistic approach and many more requirements need to be examined befo re any comprehensive system of electronic control can be put into place.

In the case of rights owners the need for protection should not be seen so much as preventing use of their material as controlling that use. Essentially, a rights owner needs to be able to control:

The rights owner also needs to be able to operate:

The rights owner also needs:

Information intermediaries need to be able to:

The users of copyright materials need to be able to:

The question is whether such a system is even remotely possible or whether such a system is more like a dream than reality. However it has been said that "when one man dreams, it is a dream; when several men dream the same thing it is the beginning of reality."

Some possible systems

This issue is being taken very seriously by lawyers, technicians, rights owners and governments in many parts of the world. In the European Union, for example, a consortium called CITED (Copyright in Transmitted Electronic Documents) is on example. In addition to the obvious skills partners also bring considerable experience of the sound recording industry through both the Computer Industry Rese arch Unit and the British Library National Sound Archive.

The basic philosophy of the CITED project is that, since we are dealing with information which is stored and, more particularly, processed digitally, it is therefore possible, in the digital environment, to control the processes which are an inevitable part of digital technology and, in consequence, control the copying of copyright material. In the present context it is immaterial what informati on is represented by the digital signal in any given case; what is now possible is the development of a generic model of copyright protection of digital information together with corresponding guidelines and toolkit to enable the model to be implemented in specified domains. The generic nature of the CITED model means that it can be relatively easily mapped on to the legal background both as it is currently and within its foreseen developments.

Electronic Copyright Management Systems and document supply

Clearly there are areas of document delivery where CITED would not be appropriate or possible and others where its use in an electronic environment would be essential for the benefit of both owners and users.

The document supply industry is one which is growing in both size and complexity. The roles of different players are becoming less and less clear. Nevertheless the basic requirements described earlier remain the same. The CITED solution offers the possibility of easy access, flexibility, comprehensive data and recompense for the owners of the many different rights involved in its operation.

Royalty collection

Although collection of royalties and data can be achieved through this system, it is desirable that such collection should not be done by each rights owner separately but could be achieved through a central agency similar to a Reproduction Rights Organisation (RRO). It would be ideal for libraries if there were ways to establish a CITED agency which would oversee and manage such elements of th e system as lend themselves to centralisation. there are still many areas of this model and its application to develop and the management of the concept is itself one of these. The collection of royalties is one of the greatest obstacles to Electronic Copyright Management Systems. Although it is technically possible to control copying, and quite possible to monitor the amount spent on copyin g by individuals or institutions, the actual collection of the hard cash is quite difficult to manage. Users consult works owned by many different publishers and authors and the mechanism to collect, account for and distribute the royalties due to each one is a manor task. Payment in advance (using a sort of telephone credit card system) is one method favoured but then detailed records need t o be kept of what is used by each card holder and this data transferred to a Trusted Third Party (impartial agency) for payment to be made. If pay-as-you-go is adopted then sophisticated software is needed to register how much the use of each document actually costs. This is behind Project COPYSMART which uses smart-card technology for this purpose.

The next steps

At present the CITED model is just that - a model. It sets out all the steps that need to be take to achieve an acceptable minimum standard of protection and access. It includes many possibilities as outlined earlier in this paper. It is not, however, a specific piece of hardware or software although it has been applied to particular systems, such as ADONIS, and demonstrated as a mimic in a rea l environment. Some librarians may the thankful for that as this kind of technology presents serious challenges to the conventional view that libraries should continue to hold a privileged position and provide uninhibited access to as wide a range of products and sources as possible. However, believing that the future holds more challenges and opportunities than it does threats, the British Libr ary has supported the development of the CITED model in several projects. One such project is COPICAT (Copyright Ownership in Computer Assisted Training). The project deals with the need to balance access to information with tracking material and recompense for owners. The material is `wrapped'. In order to read the material it needs to be unlocked by a special key. There are already systems a vailable which can protect the material while in transit. COPICAT not only does this but is also able to provide protection while the material is in use whilst legitimate users of a document are unaware that such protection is in place.

A model has been developed to operate in the educational domain, though it can be applied to other environments. The experimental system is based on university campus network; network material is held in a central store and can be accessed by tutors and students from their workstations. There will be a variety of users with differing access rights for example tutors of one course may well be st udents of another course and will therefore have different user rights. The experimental site will be set up at the University College Dublin where Technology students will be encouraged to try to break the protection mechanism. It is assumed that the students will be able to break the protection mechanism, but this is a way of ensuring that the finished product is a secure as possible.


The age of the Electronic Copyright Management system is dawning. For owners it is a dream come true. They can obtain payment and control copying of virtually all electronic documents. For some librarians and users it is a nightmare because it enables access to information to be controlled totally by the copyright owner, thus ensuring the total monopoly of intellectual property. For the practis ing information worker it is reality that is going to happen. Just how and in which mode we do not yet know but it is here to stay. The important thing is to make certain that one personís dream does not become another personís nightmare.