Identifiers and Standards - Rights and Licensing Hub

The Vital Role of Identifiers and Standards in Rights Management

16/8/2021 - Mark Bide

Identifiers and metadata have long been crucial elements of copyright management, at least in collective rights management. But their importance is predicted to grow with the increasing automation of copyright management as the distribution and reuse of content moves online.

An identifier is simply a name which is unique within its type and domain. In publishing, the ISBN provides us with an excellent example of an international standard mechanism for identifying books in the supply chain – it would indeed be hard to imagine how the book supply chain could possibly function without the ISBN. In a similar way, ONIX for Books, used around the world almost as widely as the ISBN, provides us with a mechanism for sharing “rich product information”, one important type of metadata. In journals, the CrossRef DOI has enabled the invaluable capability of “resolving” citations.

Standards like ISBN, ONIX and DOI make automated machine-to-machine communication possible. Like all well-structured metadata schemes, the DOI metadata set and ONIX depend on tightly defined controlled vocabularies, which are themselves identifiers in another guise. The ISBN provides the link between the book itself and its metadata in the computer systems of the publisher and of all other intermediaries between the author and the reader, the invaluable role of the identifier. The DOI provides access to article level metadata, as well as providing its core linking function.

When considering the role of identifiers in the management of copyrights, they are similarly necessary for linking “content” with its rightholders and with uses and users of that content. In music, sophisticated (if still imperfect) standard identification mechanisms have been built over decades to link composers, musical works, recordings of those works, performers and users in the much more complex rights ecosystem that characterises the music industry. Collective rights management is substantially more important in music than in publishing – a very much higher proportion of the total revenues of the industry are dependent on collective licensing and distribution mechanisms. As a result, DDEX messages (the nearest equivalent to ONIX in the music space) have been developed to carry much more rights information than ONIX.

In book publishing, while the ISBN may be ubiquitous, it makes a poor surrogate for an identifier of textual works (rather than products). To make this distinction clear – a hardback, a paperback, an ebook, an audiobook may all be products that can be identified with an ISBN but the ISBN does not identify the underlying literary “work” which is crucial to rights management. For the time being, the ISBN has to take the place of a work identifier (the attempt to introduce a standard textual work identifier, the ISTC, having failed to find enough support to make it sustainable). Interestingly, the CrossRef DOI looks very like a “work” identifier in its domain.

Most sectors of publishing are only just now beginning to think about the use of standard identifiers for authors and indeed for publishers themselves. However, the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI), already firmly established in parts of the music supply chain, is beginning to gain ground in publishing; and the ORCID, its academic equivalent, has been widely deployed in journals and other forms of academic publishing. It would be fair to say that the infrastructure for automated rights management in publishing is at best patchy. Some sectors are better equipped than others, but none are well served by the current standards infrastructure.

The management of rights in photographs has been poorly served by standards and continues to pose considerable problems of identification and linkage with rightholders. Much of the effort in this sector continues to focus on uncovering infringement.

Considerable interest continues to be expressed at governmental level, particularly in Europe, in developing a “digital rights management infrastructure” which will necessarily depend on the completion of a comprehensive network of rights management identifiers and metadata (including, for example, a standard way of expressing the relationship between content and rightholders).

Authors, publishers and others with an active interest in the management of rights in the digital environment would do well to keep a close watch on these activities. To a significant extent, standards define the future – in terms of what they enable (and, perhaps more importantly, what they fail to enable).

As a result, standards are a strategic not an operational issue. They are never neutral, and publishers need to be “at the table” when standards are being made if their interests are to be properly protected. Standards development certainly needs people with technical skills, but standards are far too important to leave to technologists. The technical challenges are almost always the easy ones.  The real challenge lies in “socialisation”, the mix of commercial, political and sometimes legal underpinnings that lead to successful implementation.

If you don’t engage, you shouldn’t assume that someone else is there looking after your strategic interests.

About Mark

Mark Bide has worked in and around publishing for 50 years. Following 20 years in corporate life, he established a consultancy practice serving a wide variety of clients including PLS and CLA. He also spent 5 years as Executive Director of EDItEUR, the international book and journal standards organisation. His final role was as non-executive chair of PLS and co-chair of CLA, from which he retired in 2019.