Intellectual Property: Culture, Commerce, and Digital Rights Management

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August 2003

Intellectual Property: Culture, Commerce, and Digital Rights Management

CIDMIconNewsletter David Walske, David Walske, Inc.

Mortal Consequence

I stood alone on the stage, save for the accompanist whom I had met moments earlier, having greeted him nervously with a concatenated, “Hi how are you nice to meet you,” as I handed my sheet music over the top of an old stage-battered piano. Before me, in an auditorium that might otherwise hold an audience of many, stood a lone figure, Alexander Ruggieri, director of the West Hollywood Chorale.

“Please begin.” His voice resonated with the unmistakable timber of stern authority. I hesitated, wondering at that instant what had possessed me to audition. Ruggieri, a man known more for professionalism than patience, unhesitatingly jarred me out of my stupefaction. “And what is it that we shall hear you sing tonight?” he asked.

For my audition piece, I had chosen, Let the River Run, a song you may remember as having been popularized by Carley Simon some years ago. I began, faltering on the opening note but quickly getting a vocal grasp on the piece, a song I had spent many hours practicing with Carley on CD.

I thoroughly enjoyed singing in live performances while I was a member of the chorale. But the truth is, I would have happily attended the rehearsals even if there never were to be a performance. Alexander Ruggieri provided more than musical direction. He was a fountainhead of musicological knowledge that I found engrossing, even hypnotic. From time to time, he would pause between songs to impart a small measure of that knowledge, some bit of background information pertaining to the music we were rehearsing.

Once, while rehearsing for a Mozart concert, he spoke to us of the mensural notation sprinkled throughout a difficult piece we were attempting to master. Mensural notation, originating in the 13th century, is a musical codification that lets composers assign a specific fixed time value to individual notes within a piece of music. In the time of Mozart, these notes were commonly scribed in red ink, setting them apart from the other notes penned in black so that their unique time values would not be overlooked. According to Ruggieri, the term mensural derives from a reference to the blood-like color of the red ink.

So fine
Mensural notation is uncommon in modern music, subsumed largely by counterpoint, and when it does appear in print, such as in a modern publishing of Mozart’s works, it does not generally appear in blood-red ink. However, modern music is not without its own kind of sanguinity. Musical composition is sometimes the object of dispute in figuratively bloody battles over intellectual property ownership.

In 1970, Apple Records released George Harrison’s well-received solo album, All Things Must Pass. While not his first solo effort, many regard the album as fundamental to the successful launch of Harrison’s post-Beatles career. The centerpiece song of the album, My Sweet Lord, enjoyed great popularity in its release as a single. Unfortunately even as My Sweet Lord was flying high on music charts worldwide, the copyright holders of Lonnie Mack’s He’s So Fine were bringing a plagiarism suit against Harrison. The plaintiffs alleged that Harrison’s hit song was based on Mack’s earlier work, which had been a chart-topping hit in 1963, recorded by The Chiffons.

The ensuing legal battle played out over many years. Although the exact determination of damages-how much should be paid to whom-remained in dispute for decades, a 1976 court judgment determined that an infringement of copyright had indeed occurred. The court agreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that Harrison’s use of short repeated musical phrases, or motifs, that were common to both songs constituted infringement.

Although the two musical compositions were in many ways differentiable from each other, the inclusion of the common motifs provided sufficient grounds for the court to rule against Harrison and his associates. Viewing this case in the context of the world of online information and structured content, it is not difficult to draw a parallel. The musical motifs that became the basis of the decision were shared sub-elements of the larger structure of both songs. This is really not all that different in principle from the use of shared elements across documents in multiple information databases.

The concept of copyright began as a simple idea: literally, “the right to make copies.” The notion of protecting intellectual property dates back at least as far as 18th century Britain, as is evidenced by the Statute of Anne, dated April 10th, 1710, that states, “…the author of any book… shall have the sole liberty of printing and reprinting such book… for the term of fourteen years….” In the United States, copyright can be traced back to 1776 as defined in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution which states, “…the Congress shall have power… to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” It is generally understood today that an author possesses copyright to his or her own work beginning at the very instant it is created, whether or not any formal or informal actions are taken to secure that right. Of course, proving and defending copyright can be another matter entirely: potentially a matter of serious and mortal consequence.


The framers of the Constitution believed in the importance of protecting intellectual property rights. Clearly, to encourage authors and others to produce creative works, they needed to grant them exclusive rights to such works. In time, all copyrighted works enter the public domain-by constitutional definition, copyrights are valid only for a limited time. The copyright holder benefits through remuneration during a fair period of ownership, and society at large benefits through enrichment by creative works. Creative productivity is good for both culture and commerce.

Who owns what?
Technical documentation, whether created by direct employees or independent contractors, generally falls into the category of “work-for-hire.” This means that the company for which the work is completed retains all rights of intellectual property and all copyrights. In this context of work-for hire, the term author refers to the company, not the individual content developer. As a documentation manager, you likely look to a company legal department for clarification on issues of intellectual property. But even though the decisions behind such clarifications may be out of your hands, as a manager of content, it is vital that you understand such issues and how they play out in the day-to-day world of information development.

Today’s copyright law affords authors full copyright protection-that is, the rights to make and distribute copies, create derivative works, and publicly display or perform written works-for the author’s life plus 70 years. However, the simple concepts of copyright envisioned by the founding fathers have grown into a labyrinth of complexities. No longer a matter of simply who is allowed to make a copy, intellectual property concepts circumnavigate print, electronic, and subsidiary issues and are further complicated by an increasingly distributed electronic information base. As we breach the intellectual corporate firewall to reach out to a worldwide distributed knowledge base, understanding how to manage intellectual property rights at a more granular level becomes necessary.

Digital Rights Management

Digital rights management (DRM) provides a means for granular control of intellectual property rights based both on generally applicable copyright laws and on contractual agreements defined by licensing. Your first encounter with this concept may have come in the form of an introduction to some kind of DRM software application. Therefore, thinking of DRM solely from a tools perspective might be tempting. But effective implementation of DRM-like content management (CM)-requires careful consideration and planning built upon a cumulative layered approach, the final layer of which includes software tools.

Effective DRM requires

  • a well-defined intellectual property and contract rights policy
  • the technology to represent these rights digitally
  • the ability to tag and track content granularly
  • the software tools to apply DRM technology

Because the underlying body of rights is likely to vary widely as defined by each company’s legal department, in this article I won’t speak to the specifics of those rights but rather I’ll focus on the technologies of tagging and tracking content for DRM. Issues of DRM may also include those of patents, trade secrets, and trademarks.

No doubt you have come into contact with ISBN (International Standard Book Number) identifiers, perhaps without even realizing the purpose or meaning of this system of identification. This standard has been in existence for over 30 years and is used in the United States and 158 other countries worldwide as a means of positive identification for books and other printed and electronic publications.

The 10-digit ISBN number, an ISO (International Standards Organization) standard currently in transition to an expanded 13-digit format, provides a set of one billion unique identifiers for cataloging an ever-expanding worldwide collection of published material. This collection is growing at the rate of over 50,000 new titles per year. The planned update to a 13-digit format will help to ensure a continued supply of new, unique ISBN numbers for assignment to future publications and makes the standard more compatible with the 13-digit EAN-UCC international product coding system of bar codes. See Figure 1. ISBN will continue to support existing ten-digit numbers by prefixing them with an EAN number 978. The EAN number used in standard bar code numbers specifies the type of product represented in the bar code, in this instance: books. For example the existing ten-digit ISBN 0-349840-23-1 becomes ISBN 978-0-349840-23-1. When the 13-digit format is officially adopted in 2005, new ISBN numbers will be prefixed with an EAN number of 979, effectively doubling the total of all possible ISBN numbers to two billion.


Figure 1. A standard 10-digit ISBN represented as a 13-digit bar code.

Each hyphenated segment of the ISBN represents a specific type of identifying information.

The check digit is used as a checksum to avoid errors in transmission of the ISBN. A specific mathematical formula is applied to all but the last digit. The numerical result of that calculation is assigned to the final digit of the number: the check digit. If, after the ISBN has been transmitted, the formula returns the same value as before, then the ISBN has been sent and received without error.

The ISBN system has proven to be a reliable system for tagging and tracking intellectual property. Bar code system software and peripheral hardware components are used to successfully manage virtually all published content of every type and format, from publication through distribution and beyond; a Herculean task to say the least. But does the ISBN standard satisfy our previously stated set of DRM requirements? It does, with one exception. ISBN numbers identify content at the book or volume level. Our need for tagging and tracking of intellectual property demands a much finer granularity.

The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) system provides a method of granular tagging and tracking of intellectual property. DOI does not supplant the ISBN system but rather is auxiliary to and compatible with it. The International DOI Foundation (IDF), created in 1998 to support the needs of the intellectual property community in the digital environment, is participating in the ISO Working Group for the ISBN revision project.

DOI numbers are an implementation of the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) standard and are used as a method of persistent interoperable identification of intellectual property at all levels of granularity in physical, digital, and abstract forms. DOI is fully compatible with and expressible within XML (EXtensible Markup Language).

The DOI number format combines a prefix and suffix to create a unique identifier. See Figure 2. All DOI numbers begin with 10, which declares that the number is a DOI. This is not uncommon in unique numeric identifiers–all Visa® credit card numbers begin with 4 and all Master Card® numbers begin with 5. The remaining numbers in the prefix, assigned by the IDF, identify the intellectual property owner-a publishing house, record company, software publisher, or other organization. An organization may have more than one prefix. The suffix is assigned by the intellectual property owner organization and can be any alphanumeric string of any length. The IDF Directory server resolves the entire DOI alphanumeric string to a specific digital resource.

Figure 235

Figure 2. The IDF Directory server resolves DOI numbers to a specific digital resource.

Because both the DOI prefix and suffix can be of any length, there are an unlimited number of possible DOI numbers, precluding the need for future expansion projects of the type currently in progress to extend the ISBN standard. And because DOI numbers are opaque-that is, the numbers are meaningless until resolved to a digital identifier, such as a Web address or other resource-they are persistent and always provide current information. The DOI number remains static once assigned, but the information it represents is updated as necessary.

EXtensible Rights Markup Language (XrML) is an XML-based language specification for expressing intellectual property rights associated with digital content and other digital resources. XrML has been submitted for consideration as an official standard and is likely to be accepted as such toward the end of 2003.

There are several advantages to using XrML. Of course, it fulfills our stated DRM requirements, but beyond that, because it is native XML, using XrML includes all of the advantages of XML, such as precision, extensibility, interoperability, and security to name but a few. Some software publishers, such as Microsoft for example, have already standardized on XrML. The XrML model views DRM in terms of grants. In essence, an XrML grant is a sentence in which the intellectual property owner specifies who may take what action with what object under what circumstances. See Table 1.

Table 1. XrML grant “parts of speech”



David Walske



may edit






until August 1, 2003.

A principle is an identified party, authenticated by one or more secure methods. A right is a verb that describes an action that the principle has been granted permission to perform, such as view, copy, or loan. A resource is an identifiable digital object of any kind. A condition is the expression of the terms of the grant, typically a limitation of some kind, often a measure of time. An XrML grant uses a specific XML code syntax to authenticate users and then grant specific rights as defined by the policy of the intellectual property owner.

Keys to Successful Content Management

The expanding reach of technology continues to shrink our world. Information that was once occult has become freely available to all those who care to partake, opening up new vistas of shared knowledge and information. But to successfully share information in such an open environment, we must be very clear about our actions and intentions and respect intellectual property ownership. And we must be able to swap information with total strangers confident not only in the veracity of the information we receive but also in the security of the transaction by which we receive it. In this article, I provide a brief glimpse into some of the underlying principles and technologies that can be put into play by executing a well-considered and carefully planned DRM system. Creating a secure interoperable environment that promotes the untrammeled exchange of information is one of the keys to successful content management. CIDMIconNewsletter

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