The digit as a rule of thumb

December 8, 1995

No longer content to take a back seat and lament the seeming demise of copyright in the electronic environment, creative organisations all over the world are rallying to protect a tradition that is embedded in every cultural heritage.

It is the tradition of respect for the talent and industry of creative professionals, whether they be writers, artists, composers, performers or programmers. For it is on these individuals that the new media depend. Multimedia, as the name surely implies, is not a single effect, but the combination of many skills.

Last week a multimedia initiative was launched in Brussels. It sets authors and artists in the vanguard of safeguarding their creative rights in digital works. The project is called Imprimatur. It is international, hugely ambitious, and it is being run from the offices of Britain's Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.

The aims are to produce a comprehensive analysis of how intellectual property can remain property after it has been digitised, and to prototype copyright management software for use on the Internet.

There is an impressive consortium of partners and colleagues all over the world and it has attracted substantial funding from the European Commission.

Imprimatur - Intellectual Property Rights Model and Terminology for Universal Reference - aims to reach a consensus across Europe, the United States and Japan on what should be done to ensure that creators, publishers, producers, developers and users can co-exist.

The project will fall into two sections. First, consensus-building that will address the issue of how these groups will co-operate in the digital arena and what international standards should be set. Second, building a physical system implementing the requirements of everyone involved in electronic transmission of copyright materials.

An imprimatur - in traditional terms - is an official licence to print, a licence given by an author in return for material or intangible gain. It is a stamp, an impression, signifying permission for circulation; permission that is often contained in the publisher's registration mark, or good name. As Coventry Patmore noted, "the test of true literature and its only justifiable Imprimatur is the thumb-mark of the artisan".

This electronic age has yet to redefine what that thumb-mark is - how it can be identified and respected. One possibility is public key cryptography, which can uniquely identify an authenticated digital work, but its adoption (or the adoption of any other system) must depend on agreements about standards. Technical solutions are relatively easy: far more intransigent are the problems of sorting out legal differences and reaching agreement on which technical protection methods are appropriate and how their operation is to be administered.

It is vital, in a digital world where national boundaries barely exist, to create a system that is completely interoperable, something that is seamless for the user. The analogy is with our present system of telephony and all the international arrangements that make it invisibly happen.

The Imprimatur project attempts to consolidate many ideas and research projects. The partners are a formidable crew with broad representation (see panel). Is it possible to draw disparate interest groups together?

"Look at it this way," says Chris Barlas, ALCS chairman and project leader, "we will all have to recognise the market imperative, which is that we all want to communicate with one another electronically. It is not in anyone's interest to go out on a limb.

"Just as Britain is being forced to go metric in conformity with Europe, so those countries who are not in the forefront of developing networking solutions will have to go along with the infrastructure being laid down now."

Is that wishful thinking, especially considering how software piracy in countries such as China already undermines notions of property? "Not necessarily, and one of our major tasks is to have a thorough brainstorming of all special interest groups. The Chinese Copyright Bureau is very interested and will be present at major conferences we will be hosting; indeed China will probably leap-frog straight into the new age with the broadband networks they are currently establishing across the country. Copper-wire cabling, I'm told, didn't work because the peasant community dug up the copper for its melt-down value. There's no scrap value in fibre-optic cable."

At the heart of all this is a desire to facilitate charging mechanisms. Digital works have owners, even though the insubstantiality of their light-switch appearance may make it seem otherwise. That is not to say that every piece of intellectual property uploaded to the Internet must be downloaded for a fee. But it is important that a fee-collection system is in place, one that is universally accepted, one that cannot be bypassed. It is too early to say what that system might be.

As Chris Barlas remarks, "It may or may not be a point-of-sale collection system. There may have to be different models for each sector; one for music, one for novels, one for academic papers. What we will try to do is see what such systems might look like, what underlies them and how they could work in a practical environment. We will be building a system on the server at Florence University which we will use for inter-partner communication.

"Instead of sending ordinary email messages to one another, we will treat every message as a piece of copyright material to see how the system works on a practical level."

Fee collection on this scale is virtually unthinkable without an electronic payment system such as Digicash (a software solution), Cybercash (a credit-card-type solution), or the Mondex system (a microcomputer embedded in a smart card with readers slotted in the PC like another disk drive).

All are in trial state and the eventual consumers can only hope that they will not be presented with a choice of several digital money solutions running at once, mimicking the early days of incompatibility across the personal computer platforms.

Those involved in digital cash see it as the way forward. David Birch of Hyperion, developers of the Mondex system, says: "The value of intellectual property is steadily diminishing, so if Imprimatur intends to set up a centralised collection system, the situation might arise in which administration costs are higher than the value of the property in the first place."

Creators would be able to do without intermediaries altogether, be they publishers or collecting societies. Rather than accepting an advance of Pounds 1,000 for a book, an author could sell chapters to thousands of people for 5p a time.

"And if you did sell it for 5p, why would you want to part with 1p or 2p of that to a collecting society?" Birch says.

Janet Hurrell, secretary general of ALCS and project administrator, has a different view. "I believe there will be a distinct and necessary place for economically efficient collective management societies who already have expertise in handling small sums of money for large numbers of people. Some order and organisation will be needed if payment systems are not to collapse under sheer volumes of transactions."

ALCS, after all, is an organisation of creators representing 12,000 writers in Britain and approximately 130,000 individuals through its links to sister organisations.

Their concern is that the "official licence" of publication is still in place even though "printing" is now possible on screens. And if that sounds simplistic, in view of the difficulties of salvaging copyright in a world where digital products are intrinsically copiable at near-zero cost, it is because it needs constant reiteration.

We must not forget that we have become a society of professionalisms. And writing, illustrating, composing and performing have become professions with strong professional bodies representing them.

But the user community, including the united forces of academia, jibes at the notion of paying for knowledge by the page or by the byte.

As Sandy Norman of the Library Association puts it: "If and when the copyright equation is solved, the likelihood is that the privilege of being able to copy digitally will come with a hefty bill. Copyright, when accompanied by technology, may therefore be preventing intellectual development rather than furthering it."

This is a common anxiety and not one that Imprimatur intends to duck. At its core is the lack of common understanding of what is involved in fair dealing and where private study ceases to be private. There is some thought that fair dealing will cease to have any meaning in the digital world, because several sallies into the Internet to download a discrete and "fair" chunk of text so easily constitutes an "unfair" collection. And in a multimedia work, can you say what a part of a work is part of? Besides, according to the laws of what country would an unfair use be an infringement? In the Internet such questions make no sense. In the US, users and publishers have been involved in an on-going "conference" on the subject for about a year.

The last set of guidelines, drawn up in 1976, is now out of touch with reality and unlikely to be changed.

Stephen Saxby, senior lecturer at Southampton University on the UK's first undergraduate course in information technology law thinks that perceived expectations of access to information cannot be ignored.

He believes that with printing costs receding into non-existence, the time has come for public sector documents to be accessible without charge on the Internet. Crown copyright (notoriously stringent) should lead the way by making freely available core documentation such as the basic laws of the land, Hansard, and health and environmental bulletins.

"There is a changing attitude towards the use of information and we will have to go with the flow of public opinion. The status quo will have to change because it is impractical to have a range of rights attached to a work in multimedia. Retaining old concepts will hinder its development. International law will have to be updated."

He sees this as not inconsistent with commercial charging by the private sector. "Any group or individual who publishes digitally has the right to decide what remuneration system is appropriate for those materials."

And Chris Barlas points out: "We're already used to the move from a business-based system to value-based systems. Take the Stock Exchange, for example. The cost of subscribing to its online service in real time is extremely high, but the information once it has aged by 15 minutes is available on CompuServe at a fraction of the cost.

"The cost of producing the figures is the same, but perception of their value is very different."

*Darrel Ince reviews the Journal of Object Oriented Systems, page 28.

*The second article in Andrew Charlesworth's series on law and the Internet will be printed in Multimedia on January 12.

Making its mark: the Imprimatur group

The Bertelsmann Group (Germany) (publishing); the British Library (UK) (libraries); Groupe Bull (France) (computers); CISAC (France) Confederation International d'Auteurs et Compositeurs (creators in 85 countries); CliPet (UK) (telecommunications); DigiCash (Netherlands) (digital money); EUSIDIC (Luxembourg) the European Information Users and Producers Association; Florence University (Italy); ILC (UK) Imprimatur Legal Consultancy; IFPI (UK) the International Federation of Phonographic Industries; Imperial College, London (UK); Interactive Multimedia Association (United States); Telia (Spain) (telecommunications); TELES (Germany) (electronic management systems); Thomson Broadcast Systems (France) (high resolution imaging). Beyond Europe are strong connections to the US, Japan and China who are actively keen to share research. The result should be the market-led approach of the US tempered by European regulatory issues.

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