Rights Management Through Enhanced Attribution

John S. Erickson <john.erickson@netrights.com>
NetRights, LLC
One Court Street, Suite 370
Lebanon, NH 03766, USA


Many of today's proposed solutions to the copyright management problem focus exclusively on end use. The enhanced attribution approach includes the creative process, maximizing the value that contributors bring to new media commerce.

Multimedia developers and creativity workers have every right to view the networked future as a mixed blessing. The Internet has the potential to greatly enhance the fruitful exchange of processes and services between creators during collaborative development efforts. It promises to be the ultimate distribution channel, making finished works easily available to consumers. Though the potential for new media commerce with today's technology is certainly clear, open commerce on the Internet comes at a great price. Since no practical, open technology exists by which creativity workers might identify their works, they cannot ensure that they or their collaborators will receive proper credit. And there is no way to guarantee in a straightforward way the authenticity of a work and its ownership.

No open technology exists that allows both creators and publishers to associate levels of permission and rules for use with a work in a manner that can persist throughout derivative use of that work. Such a means for administering these permissions easily across the Internet is essential; and further, it must make compliance with the established rules easier and less expensive than cheating.

Technologies for controlling access and metering use will not, by themselves, enable new media commerce to flourish. Commerce in this area will be enhanced if tools and processes emerge that help developers do their jobs, save them money, and ensure future opportunities. Multimedia developers need a creator-driven approach that focuses first on making their works accessible, then on ensuring proper attribution, and finally on making compliance extremely easy. Until now, copyright has been an inhibitor to multimedia development; in contrast, copyright through enhanced attribution will be a powerful enabler, making every work a launching point for new media commerce.

This paper focuses on system requirements that lead to open solutions for rights management. The best solution must complement the evolving desktop of creativity workers, helping them to create better works through collaboration while reducing the burden of rights management.

Internet: The mixed blessing

The Internet is about connecting people and sharing information. As such, it has the potential to radically change the way new media is created and distributed. Today, new media developers are rapidly adopting the tools and technologies they need to develop new media content, but they are slow to embrace the Internet as an infrastructure for collaborative development and product distribution. A key inhibitor to growth in this area is the lack of means for content owners and creators to properly identify works, that is, in a fashion that is useful and persistent in the digital, collaborative, networked environment. Without assurance that their name, services, and processes remain associated with a work, and without confidence that they retain control of their rights to a work, they are reluctant to orphan their work in cyberspace.

A related problem exists for multimedia developers: the frustrations and expense associated with the location, identification, and acquisition of rights for content elements targeted for new productions and the difficulties matching project content requirements with possible providers. No reliable or widespread means exist on the Internet to locate available content in a variety of media formats. No regular, systematic method exists for identifying works found on the Internet and obtaining detailed and current information about ownership, creatorship, and licensing terms. No solution exists that combines a means for browsing, trial, or fair use of content with a persistent system for attribution and authentication.

There remains a dearth of substantive new media services directly available on the Internet. The cost of entry for content creators is lower than ever, and certainly the Internet promises low costs of distribution and collaboration. In the open environment, whole new categories of creators will have the opportunity to compete in the marketplace. We do not see this today, however, because the risks for new media creators outweigh the potential gains: With no means to authentically associate content elements with the providers of the processes and services from which they originate, the deployment of substantive services such as Internet-based new media development will continue to be sluggish at best.

Rights management: Where are we today?

During 1995 much [1]attention was drawn to the dangers of copyright infringement on the Internet. Many organizations produced reports which began to explore the problems of copyright management on public networks[2,3,4] and summarized certain proposed commercial solutions. Following the debate which raged during 1994 and much of 1995 the US Commerce Department released its "White Paper" on Intellectual Property and the NII[5], accompanied by certain legislative recommendations. The year closed with the birth of the Electronic Rights Management Group (ERMG), an inter-industry organization sponsored by the Information Industries Association (IIA) to consider standardization and business issues amongst vendors, customers, and adopters of rights management technologies[6]. It is clear from these developments that rights management is a huge issue, content creators and owners have a variety of requirements, ad hoc solutions are not sufficient, and a class of similar commercial solutions are emerging.

The real problem hasn't gone away and new media developers should be concerned. The problem is fundamental: today's ad hoc attribution schemes and emerging document packaging technologies are end-use solutions that don't allow the Internet and a developer's creativity tools to work in synergy to lighten the rights management burden. Rights clearinghouses (BMI[7], ASCAP[8], CCC[9], and others) offer self-consistent interfaces for licensing works, provided those works have been clearly identified and are associated with those clearinghouses. Restricted access and encryption technologies offer a means for controlling who uses a work but are not conceived with collaboration and derivative creation in mind. Likewise, metering and subscription technologies are directed at end-use or consumer access, solving the distributor's problem of collecting payment for use without solving the multimedia developer's production issues.

Proposed solutions have little to do with collaboration and sharing and everything to do with keeping information under lock and key. Controlled access and metering do not explain how large and small multimedia developers and electronic editors and publishers will use the Internet to reduce the real costs of production: finding and identifying content, competitive and best-in-class contracting for new content, and rights acquisition. The answer is rooted in the fundamental purpose of attribution: associating the people behind creative works with their content, where ever it may be found and however it may be used. As technologies for expression evolve, so must our means of attribution; from this is born the concept of enhanced attribution.

What is enhanced attribution?

The goal of attribution has always been to ensure that credit is given where credit is due. Attribution can be as simple as identifying a work and its creator, or it can be quite complex and extensive, listing the variety of source works from which a derivative work is composed and the creative contributors. Today some works are distributed with licensing terms and conditions clearly noted to facilitate collaboration and re-use.

Enhanced attribution is more than a verifiable stamp of identification for a work. It bridges the gap between the creator and user, facilitating real-time rights transactions and other networked communications. It allows the creator to affix a set of minimum permissions [10] to a work, specifying activities for which rights transactions are not required. Minimum permissions represent a unique, systematic way to provide for free and fair use, options which metering and subscription solutions do not consider.

In the enhanced attribution approach properties attached to data are persistent, propagating through the "family tree" of a work. As derivative works are prepared the attribution records for source works are accumulated and become part of the final attribution for that work. At each stage of the project a complete list of source works is available, accompanied by licensing status; since each record is in fact a connection to the creator's designated registry, rights management and licensing is made easy.

Enhanced attribution is different because it focuses on making compliance and related communications extremely easy rather than on making cheating hard. Multimedia developers and electronic publishers are in large part honest people who spend a large percentage of their production costs in the effort to be honest as they produce great works. Enhanced attribution makes ubiquitous on the Internet the ability to authenticate works and engage in real-time communications and rights transactions regarding those works. In short, with enhanced attribution every work becomes a launching point for communication and commerce.

How is enhanced attribution used?

Digital works created today become part of a worldwide content asset library. It is a library with no systemic organization and no clear entry point and is therefore difficult for developers to take advantage of. The application of enhanced attribution to new media works, implying a particular packaging of the object and the registration of works by authorized users resulting in the storage of attributes on a network of registration servers, enables location, identification, licensing, and use of content worldwide. This network-wide collection of registration servers and creator databases (creatorbases) in fact becomes a virtual clearinghouse [11]. Access to the worldwide virtual clearinghouse may be through content elements, web pages, or programs exhibiting enhanced attribution or directly through network access points.

It is clear that copyright management must begin on the creative desktop at the point of creation of new content. When creators register new works as authorized users of distributed registration servers, the complete information about the work, minimum permissions, and linkages to communications services become associated with the work and part of its registry entry. As the work progresses through the creative process attributes will change; some, such as ownership and rights administration data, need only change at the registry (since the work itself has not changed); authorized modifications of the work or derivative works will require new registration.

All information associated with a work becomes accessible through the content itself and through virtual clearinghouse access points. Enhanced attribution first becomes apparent when a possible infringement occurs. For example, when an attempt is made to copy a work (e.g.: dragging and dropping between applications or copying at the operating system level) current ownership and copyright information is immediately displayed. Through the same interface the user instantly has the opportunity to review ownership details, examine minimum permissions for user, and obtain a more extensive set of terms.

Enhanced attribution does more than facilitate electronic licensing, however. The interface enables the user to immediately communicate with the owner or creative talent using their current, preferred means of communication. This interface may be used to negotiate new licensing terms or to establish collaborative development arrangements. Finally, the worldwide network of registration servers is accessible, allowing searches for content and providers based on type of work, media, subject matter, and other parameters.

Creator-driven tools, object-friendly Internet

During the next two years we will witness the deployment of a number of rights management systems offering competing technologies and underlying management models. The providers of these tools and technologies are the new kids on the multimedia development block, marketing to an industry that demands interoperability and has established a variety of standards to this end. It is an industry that is not interested in tools and processes which make production more difficult. To be successful, rights management tools must play on developers' desktop and meld with existing tools. Content objects with enhanced attribution must play seamlessly with creativity tools during production flow, making their features apparent when required but sliding into the background when appropriate.

We need a new generation of rights management tools whose purpose and use is obvious to new media developers. Just as rights management must flow end-to-end, originating on the developer's desktop, so must the evolution of desktop tools follow the developer's work flow: searching for and identifying content, reviewing ownership and terms, online contracting and licensing (either through templates and automation or through network-assisted human intervention), even network-augmented collaboration on new projects using previous work as an interface. Before we begin to talk about packaging, securing, and shipping end products, we need to establish systems and formats for front-end commerce.

We need a continuation of the move towards object-friendly creativity tools; in particular we must see more tools leveraging operating system object extensions, specifically OLE 2.0. If creativity tool developers live up to their end of the bargain and fully develop towards existing and future APIs for object extensions such as OLE 2.0, the exact specification of the interface to the data which rights management solutions provide is less critical and the opportunity exists for market segmentation. The market does not and should not call for a uniform solution; for rights management tool developers to provide the proper differentiation we must be able to develop to an API that is at a sufficiently high level.

Object friendliness must propagate to and become ubiquitous in network clients and servers. While the technical and security issues surrounding the bootstrapping of objects on client machines remain unsolved, OLE 2.0-based packaging will emerge as the predominant rights management container solution (for enhanced attribution as well as other approaches) and both server and browser technologies must respond accordingly.

Standards discussions are important but the opportunity must exist for market differentiation between rights management solutions. We would prefer to focus on helping creativity tool developers understand the depth to which we are making use of object-extended features of Windows 95 and Windows NT, for example. We are confident that if that goal is achieved, the problems associated with making encryption-based and open solutions interoperate will be reduced.


The multimedia industry has waited too long for networked rights management solutions. Arguably the tools and technologies should have evolved even as the means for delivering information payloads evolved. Now is our opportunity to complete the circle and provide attribution tools and technologies which support and extend their creativity tools.

The value of networked communications will be realized when new media creators can supply new, original content with confidence, when consumers may readily access that work, and when commercial communication can easily take place between owners, creators, and potential consumers. Our belief is that those who deliver the means for enhanced attribution will go the farthest towards supporting this type of commerce.


John Erickson is Chief Scientist and a co-founder of NetRights, LLC, which is developing the LicensIt family of new media commerce products. Until October 1995 John was a Research Assistant at the Interactive Media Lab, Dartmouth Medical School, and remains a Ph.D. candidate at the Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College. His research interests include the development of tools for the management of copyrights and the enhancement of commerce for developers of network-deployed multimedia content. Since arriving in the Hanover area John has also done consulting work in association with Matrix Simulations of Hanover, NH, involving advanced multimedia applications. From 1984 until 1992 John was with Digital Equipment Corporation in Marlboro, MA, where he was the system architect and project leader for a number of advanced test equipment development efforts. He holds a BSEE (1984) from RPI and an M.Eng (1989) from Cornell University.


[1] Ebersole, Joseph L., Protecting Intellectual Property Rights on the Information Superhighways, Information Industry Association, Washington, DC. March 1994.

[2] Ebersole, Joseph L., Protecting Intellectual Property Rights on the Information Superhighways, Information Industry Association, Washington, DC. March 1994.

[3] Christopher Burns, Inc., Copyright Management and the NII: Report to the Enabling Technologies Committee of the Association of American Publishers, Association of American Publishers, Washington, DC. May 1995.

[4] Weber, Robert, Digital Rights Management Technologies, International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organization, Danvers, MA. October 1995.

[5] Information Infrastructure Task Force: Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights, Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure, Washington, DC. September 1995. ISBN: 0-9648716-0-1

[6] Minutes of the first meeting of the Electronic Rights Management Group (Boston, MA), Information Industries Association, October 31, 1995.

[7] Broadcast Music Incorporated <http://bmi.com/>

[8] Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers <http://www.ascap.com>

[9] Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. <http://www.copyright.com>

[10] Erickson, John S., "A Copyright Management System for Networked Interactive Multimedia," Proceedings of the Dartmouth Institute for Advanced Graduate Studies: Electronic Publishing and the Information Superhighway, Boston, MA, June 1995.

[11] Fred Greguras, Esq. has written extensively on issues related to distributed multimedia clearinghouses. See "Copyright Clearances and Moral Rights," Softic Symposium '95, November 1995.