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The answer to the machine


By Mark Bide and Alicia Wise





The answer to the machine


As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we do well to recall Charles Clark’s aphorism “the answer to the machine is in the machine” – an observation which he first made more than fifteen years ago when the digital age was still in its infancy. The copyright industries have spent much of the intervening period largely ignoring his pithy advice.

The thesis is straightforward enough. Copyright as law is entirely fit for the new environment of networks and digital dissemination. But traditional practice for the management of copyright – individually lawyer-crafted licences, communication on paper, people-heavy processes – can only be a thing of the past.

We need to find ways of managing copyright that go with the grain of technology rather than falling back on cross-grained attempts to maintain a vanishing status quo. The internet inevitably brings with it the end of traditional ways of doing business, of high barriers to entry, of incumbency rights. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no compulsion on society to accept that “information wants to be free” or that copyright itself has somehow become an outmoded concept. There are many who would like it to be so – and some with strong commercial interests that it should be so.  But before we allow them to destroy what copyright has created, we should think very hard about what we would be losing in its destruction.

Copyright was conceived as a tool to encourage creativity; over three centuries, it has become the engine of a hugely diverse media sector, a society which values the role of author and composer, of photographer and musician and recognizes their right to decide. Without copyright (and related intellectual rights), the media as we know it today – whether in entertainment, education or the delivery of news or other factual information – simply could not and would not exist.  The risks are obvious, as many of our media businesses seem in a long decline that can only end in one way.

There are those who believe that what we are describing are the death throws of the dinosaurs of old media and that other lither and more agile “internet savvy” businesses will arise to take their place in the content ecosystem. But there is precious little evidence to suggest that this is so – almost all the businesses that are making money out of content on the internet are dependent on other people’s investment (of time and money) in  creating that content. Platitudes about the value of “the link economy” count for nothing in the real world. Unless the individuals and businesses which create content can find a way of making a return on their investment, they will cease to create (and those with money to invest will put it elsewhere). Copyright is what makes it possible to make a return on creativity – and it is critical to the development of a thriving and diverse creative culture on the internet. Without copyright, society will be much the poorer. Currently, the diversity and richness of content on the internet is subsidised by content delivered in other – physical – distribution channels. When that subsidy is no longer available, or at least becomes much less significant – as must inevitably be the case – the internet will come to be a drab and uninteresting place. Unless we can re-establish the rule of law.

But how can we make copyright work in an environment where to make perfect copies and to republish content of any kind is so simple that we can all do it?

The answer to the machine must indeed lie in the machine. As we move into a machine-to-machine environment, the business of managing copyright must become a machine-mediated process, in which the complexity of copyright is completely hidden from the individual user, as it always has been in the past.

Technology builds very complex systems but, properly implemented, hides all that complexity from the user. You pick up your mobile phone when you are thousands of miles from home and  dial the number of someone else’s mobile phone who may be anywhere on the planet. And with little fuss or bother, and remarkably little delay, you are connected. And everyone gets paid for the call.  As a user you don’t need to understand how it happens – you just have to have confidence that it happens.

Why can’t rights management work like that? The answer is, of course, that it could – but first we need to build the necessary technical infrastructure.

Building the 21st Century Rights Management Infrastructure

What would it mean to bring the management of copyright into the 21st Century?

In the first place, we suggest that this isn’t primarily about “digital rights management” – or at least not as this phrase is commonly understood. Technical protection methods (TPMs) may have their place in the management of copyright on the internet, but they lie at the end of a process of rights management, not at its beginning. Enforcement is not the first issue to tackle.

The primary issue is about using technology to do what technology is really good at – managing data, particularly managing well structured and standardised data, and using that data to automate the processes that control everything around us.

In the physical world, we have to identify the content – and we have become quite good at applying persistent identifiers to our products. Book publishing led the way with the introduction of the ISBN four decades ago, and demonstrated how technology could be used to automate and manage previously manual (and error-prone) commercial processes.

In the last decade, using metadata communication protocols (particularly ONIX), the industry has got much better at communicating the rich data that is needed to describe its products in a world where online retail now means that description is all we have to go on when we choose to buy something.  But at least the thing that is being described is a tangible physical object with parameters that are relatively easily understood.  The identification and description of physical products is simple in comparison with the requirement to manage the identification of the very intangible “content” – and even more so the description of rights permissions associated with the use of that content.  For as content moves from the physical to the digital world, it becomes increasingly clear that the currency of commerce in content is not the content itself, but in the rights and permissions to access and use that content.  Rights and permissions data moves centre stage.

Let us imagine a world where rights and permissions are managed automatically.

Alice wakes up and begins her day.  As it’s a Saturday there’s quite a lot to do.  First off is a videoconference with a board member in Australia to select a new supplier, next breakfast, then the change to watch her 7 year old son perform in a play.  Alice then needs to cast her ballot in the local election, pay some bills, get the shopping in, chat with her Mum, and do a variety of other little tasks.  How will she manage to squeeze it all in before dashing off to do volunteer work planting trees at the local forest trust? No worries.  Her alarm clock is integrated with the household wifi, so from the moment she wakes up helpful reminders and planning tools are at her beck and call.  While brushing her teeth the digital radio alerts her that it is almost time for that videoconference.  She downloads the post on her way, and is delighted to see The Economist and The Times have arrived.  She sits down and the videoconference begins  with no hassle.  Helpful the home wifi has compiled information about the tendering companies,  and produced a risk analysis of each proposal. She’s prompted to make a breakfast selection, and by the time the videoconference is ended the croissant is nicely warm and ready to devour.  Her son’s play starts up on Club Penguin, and is a great way for him to meet up with mates in London and Capetown.  Voting online takes a few minutes as does paying the council tax bill.  Most of the other bills are set up already and only need a quick glance before they go off.  The shopping is done through Ocado –it’s reliable and the groceries will arrive on Tuesday morning.  Mum still keeps a telephone which means Alice can’t see her during their conversation but they are still able to chatter away.  She hops in the car, and listens to some excellent 1990’s Britpop along with a mix of more recent tunes inspired by the genre, as the GPS guides her to the planting site. So… what’s happening? Well, there’s a lot of sophisticated technological infrastructure, but the important point is that Alice can’t see it.  The family home has high-bandwidth wireless connectivity, and services are synched between home, car, work, and school.  Each family member has a secure online identity which enables them to carry out very trusted transactions online and with minimal hassle.  Attached to this identity is the entitlement to use online resources.  The family pays a monthly subscription for access to what they want.  No family member keeps a personal collection of music, videos, or texts any more – they simply access what’s needed.The creators and publishers and distributors of all this content receive micropayments reflecting the usage of their material and their various contributions to its creation and dissemination.  The content that is downloaded is recorded, and royalties allocated and automatically paid.

We need to be able to identify the content being used and who controls the rights in it; we need to be able to identify the user and the usage; we need to be able automatically to link these various entities together to complete a transaction. This is probably less complicated than connecting two mobile phones on opposite sides of the planet – but not a whole lot less complicated.

And whereas managing the metadata that enables us to sell books sometimes seems quite daunting, managing metadata for managing rights and permissions on this scale is of an altogether different order of magnitude.  It requires that we hold in structured and codified form information that we have previously been content to keep on paper in filing cabinets – or in our heads.

This data (or at least those portions which do not threaten privacy or confidentiality) will need to be held in accessible registries (online databases) – and those registries linked together through a trusted (and trustworthy) messaging infrastructure.  These in turn have links to secure transactional systems that handle payments potentially to support many different types of business model – from low value micropayments to high value “all you can eat” subscriptions. And this infrastructure has to be pervasive – as pervasive as the network itself.

A work in progress

In many different initiatives, coming from many different starting points, the work of building the infrastructure has already started. We do not have space here for a comprehensive tour d’horizon, far less for a detailed description of each of the projects, but the selection here points to the effort that is now being made by many different organisations to address this increasingly urgent challenge.

The DOI (Digital Object Identifier: was established over a decade ago to provide a resolvable identifier infrastructure to manage intellectual property on the internet, and is finally beginning to make significant headway outside its “home territory”, academic publishing. This is due to become an ISO standard in the near future. At the same time, ISO itself has been working on two critical standards: the ISTC (International Standard Text Code: which enables the standard identification of textual works; and the ISNI (International Standard Name Identifier – still a work in progress) which should (inter alia) facilitate the creation of the appropriate link between content and rights holder.

Structured approaches to expressing licences and permissions are exemplified by ONIX-PL (ONIX for Publication Licences:, a standard format for the communication of publishers’ licences to libraries and other institutional customers) and ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol: a format for the communication of much simpler permissions expressions to manage online business-to-business transactions (including, for example, news aggregation).  In the visual arts, we have the work of the PLUS Coalition (, an organisation which has made substantial progress in the development of standards to support the automated processing of the licensing of photographs and graphic arts. And, of course, there is the Creative Commons (, a philosophical movement as much as it is a standards initiative, which offers a range of machine-readable licences primarily appropriate to the management of non-commercial content.  And at the more technical end, DECE ( is the most recent project to seek to deliver interoperable TPMs for home networks – for managing permissions in our growing consumer video and audio collections.

And we are also seeing the development of the first online rights registries, for example in the work of the Book Rights Registry ( being established in the wake of the Google Book Search preliminary settlement. In Europe, the ARROW project ( has been established to facilitate the licensing of digitisation of library collections; this ambitious project has at its heart the concept of a distributed registry of rights information, linked by a “switchboard” – and we return to our telephone analogy.  Other registries planned include a registry of photographic rights planned by the PLUS Coalition and possibly a European music rights registry.

Creative  Convergence

It would be an entirely unjustifiable overstatement to claim that these diverse initiatives are all carefully fashioned parts of a well conceived master plan, and that each will simply slot into its allotted place. On the contrary, a key task of the next decade will undoubtedly be to pull these different initiatives together into a coherent functional infrastructure. No one of the projects holds the complete answer to the management of copyright on the network, but each has its own part to play.

In the meantime, every company in the creative industries needs to get its own house much more effectively in order. As the work to put together claims for the Book Rights Registry has demonstrated so clearly to book publishers, not knowing what rights you own and control has potentially serious consequences (and can involve enormous amounts of rather unproductive work).  This may be understandable in dealing with the physical legacy, but cannot be excused in the management of today’s digital inventory.

The building of this infrastructure will be a fitting tribute not only to the insight of Charles Clark, who died in 2006, but also to three centuries of copyright law.

Mark Bide

Mark Bide has worked in and around the publishing industry for nearly 40 years. In January 2009, he was appointed Executive Director of EDItEUR, the trade standards body for the global books and serials communities. He is also a Director of Rightscom, the specialist London-based media consultancy, where among other client engagements, he is the Project Director for the ACAP project, working to standardise protocols for the machine-to-machine communication of permissions in the network environment.  Before he joined Rightscom in 2001, he ran his own consultancy business for nearly 10 years. His publishing career began at Pergamon Press in 1971. He went on to become a Director of the European subsidiaries of both CBS Publishing and John Wiley & Sons.  He is a Visiting Professor of the University of the Arts London.

Alicia Wise

Alicia Wise is Chief Executive of the Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) and Head of Digital Publishing to The Publishers Association (PA).  PLS is the not-for-profit organisation owned by ALPSP, the PA, and the PPA that oversees collective licensing arrangements for UK publishers.  PLS distributes approximately £25m per annum in copyright royalties to publishers.  Alicia holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Prior to joining the publishing industry she worked as an academic and archaeologist, then joined the Joint Information Systems Committee first to manage national negotiations for access to a broad array of intellectual property and then to direct research and development programmes to stimulate the innovative use of information technology in further and higher education.

Abstract: As we move further into the 21st century, publishers should heed Charles Clark’s timely advice that “the answer to the machine is in the machine”.  It is not copyright as law that is the problem. Rather we need to embrace technology not only as a publishing medium but as the way to manage copyright on the internet.  There are a number of diverse projects pointing the way to this future but there is an urgent need to bring these together into a coherent rights management infrastructure to ensure the future of a vibrant and diverse copyright industry.

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