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Technology, collaboration and education are key to protect the rights of content owners

By Vincent Baby, IPTC Chairman

How can technology help assert and protect the rights of content creators? Representatives from publishers, news agencies, photographers trade associations, law firms and standards bodies gave a pragmatic answer to this question at a one-day conference organized by the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) on March 12, 2013 in Amsterdam.

Yes, tools like standardized rights expression languages (REL) and intellectual property registries can go a long way to communicate rights and support efficient content licensing. But participants agreed that these initiatives can’t fully succeed unless they are backed by strong industry collaboration and better public education about the value of copyright.

“As long as it’s easier to right-click than to license, the unauthorized use of images will remain as the prevalent model”, said Eugene Mopsik, Executive Director of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

The conference, titled Machine Readable Rights and the News Industry: Opportunities, Standards, Challenges, had a focus on the expression of rights associated with content. Unlike digital rights management (DRM), which relies on access control technologies to limit access to digital works, machine readable rights are designed to streamline licensing and distribution but leave compliance at the discretion of content buyers and users.

Protecting picture rights

As an illustration of the challenges faced by content owners, IPTC released a study detailing how social networks deal with embedded photo metadata like the name of the creator or the copyright notice. The study shows that major social networks like Facebook, Twitter and the free version of Flickr remove this information from the pictures uploaded by their users.

“If users provide rights data and descriptions within their images, these data shouldn’t be removed without their knowledge”, said Michael Steidl, Managing Director of IPTC, a consortium of the world’s major news agencies, news publishers and news industry vendors.

Copyright infringement was very much on the mind of representatives from the picture industry. “It seems to be almost the only subject of conversation amongst photographers at this stage – is the evil of being on the internet, does it outweigh any benefits that we get”, asked photojournalist John D McHugh, who created the Marksta picture-watermarking app as a result of his frustration with unauthorized reproduction of his work.

Imagery is particularly vulnerable because it is very easy to detach rights metadata from pictures. As a consequence, several industry groups are building registries which will provide unique identifiers to images registered by their owners. These identifiers might then be linked to databases storing rights information. If the license terms of a particular asset change over time, the rights information can be updated without having to modify the identifier.

Registries are a way to “simplify and facilitate the communication and management of image rights”, said Jeff Sedlik, CEO of the PLUS Coalition. CEPIC, a trade association for European picture agencies, is also developing its own image registry.   

“Start somewhere”

In a broader business-to-business context, the rationale for machine readable rights is to make licensing more efficient, said George Galt, Associate General Counsel at the Associated Press. According to him, large, complex enterprise deals will continue to rely on human handling, but machine readable rights could be the basis for lower-value automated transactions. One problem facing news agencies today is not that some buyers are unwilling to pay, but that they are too small to fit the traditional labor-intensive sales model, he pointed out. In addition, RELs can be used to efficiently communicate per item restrictions to large customers.  

The Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), which aggregates articles from the major British newspaper publishers and licenses them on their behalf to press clipping agencies and content databases, also see machine-readable rights as the way forward, said Faisal Shahabuddin, Head of Product and Service Management. Unlike the AP, NLA envisages the possibility of translating the entirety of its licenses as standardized metadata, using the RightsML standard developed by IPTC.

However, he pointed out that “standards by themselves won’t do anything” unless publishers can be convinced that they will derive additional value, thereby justifying the required investment.

What matters is to “start somewhere”, argued Stuart Myles, Director of Schema Standards at AP and Lead of the Rights Expression Languages Working Group of IPTC. Publishers may choose to start using RightsML within their internal systems or at the point of delivery to customers, but “not everything needs to be converted at the same time” and there may be benefits in choosing particular media types or customer types to begin with. Adoption can then be ramped up.

In the B2C context, conveying rights information using technology has become a hot topic in the dispute between German newspaper and magazine publishers and Google. Publishers must be able to express granular permissions such as differentiated rights for multiple individual items on a web page, time-limited storage or maximum length of snippets displayed in search results, argued Thomas Höppner of Olswang, a law firm representing the German press.

These finely grained restrictions can’t be communicated using the robots.txt protocol endorsed by Google. Instead, German publishers are exploring a combination of two IPTC standards, RightsML and rNews, as a solution to embed rights metadata into web pages. Google’s position remains that robots.txt is sufficient.

Embedding rights vs. licenses

Industry players have different views about the scope for machine readable rights. While some think that the point is to communicate the full license terms, others see rights expression languages as a complement to an overarching and separate contract which provides the overall context for specific restrictions communicated in machine readable form.

“A rights expression language doesn’t have to do it all. Covering 80% is better than striving to reach 100%”, said George Galt of the AP. “There is always a point at which human interpretation is required”, agreed Jeff Sedlik, “automation should be taken only as far as possible.”

The alternative is to fully standardize terms and conditions à la Creative Commons, which offers just six simple licenses and has been widely adopted as a result. But these licenses only apply within the bounds of fair use and stay clear of unambiguously defining important concepts like what constitutes commercial or non-commercial use.

Many participants took a pragmatic view of the role of standards. “Expressing rights statements on the web is easy. Getting people to listen is hard”, noted Phil Archer of the W3C, “you can’t make a leap from the markup to the legal fact.”

Graham Bell, Chief Data Architect at EDItEUR, the international trade standards body for the book supply chain, noted that standards tend to work well in business-to-business environments because participants have incentives to achieve a high level of interoperability. But he drew a distinction between “machine readable” and “machine actionable” rights expressions. Providing a link to terms and conditions hosted remotely is machine readable. By contrast, truly “machine actionable” rights “can drive function within a delivery platform, but need unambiguous semantics concerning the nature of the rights that you own or are trying to sell.”

Cross-industry collaboration

Standards tend to be very industry-specific but, in practice, need to be interconnected because the same commercial platforms display or sell a wide range of media assets to the same end-users. Furthermore, many standards share common roots and rely on a handful of frameworks. For instance, two profiles of ODRL, the Open Digital Rights Language, already exist for the news industry (RightsML) and Creative Commons and another is in development for PLUS.

“Rights are actually common across many media types and the content that we are dealing with is multimedia”, noted Andrew Farrow, Project Director at the Linked Content Coalition, a cross-media coalition to develop a standards-based rights management and communications infrastructure embracing all creative industries. “We aren’t talking about silos anymore, we are talking about packages of content and we need some way of deciding, if I say potato, if you say potahto, do we actually mean the same thing?”

The second rationale for strong industry collaboration is the balance of power between content creators and powerful platforms like social networks or search engines. At present, there is little incentive for these household names to engage with rights owners and someone noted that none of them were present at the conference.

Andrew Moger, Executive Director of the News Media Coalition, said news organizations should also present a united front when dealing with sports and entertainment rights holders who increasingly try to claim blanket ownership rights over the content created at their events. “The news media is focused on the short term and failing to articulate its value”, he regretted.

Educating users about content rights  

Ultimately, several speakers pointed out, the surest way to enforce content rights is to educate users about the value of intellectual property. John D McHugh said his app was a small step in this direction. By allowing amateur and professional photographers taking pictures on their iPhone or iPad to overlay on images a small watermark displaying their name or a copyright statement, their awareness of the rights of other creators might be raised. “Perhaps a little social engineering can help”, he ventured. “If people feel more ownership of their own products, maybe they’ll be less likely to steal other people’s photographs.”

Jonas Öberg, Regional Coordinator for Creative Commons in Europe, concurred: “People who see a picture without attribution must be made to feel that something is missing”, he suggested.

Watch videos and download presentations used at the conference