Rights management for publishers seems to be a hot topic, with people extolling their virtues at conferences and think pieces released almost every month. But it might be time to pivot the conversations we have away from exclusively talking about Digital Rights Management and blockchain solutions to include the mundane, day-to-day work of rights management.
To start off, a useful primer from the World Intellectual Property Organization (available here) points out that there are at least four distinct asset types for which rights management is relevant:
Titles in the publishing house catalogue for the current year, as well as the backlist
Contracts with authors which grant the publisher the right to publish and sell
Publishing for other and different readers through digital means like print-on-demand, or digital format.
None of these is simple, of course — books contain copyrights for the text, illustrations, photographs, etc., each of which can be subject to different contracts. And apart from individual contracts, there often are laws governing intellectual property that need to be complied with, some international (like the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works) and others vary by country and type of use (like the EU’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market).
For reasons like this, it makes sense for publishers to invest in a system that helps maintain records of contracts, instead of relying on the surprisingly common approach of maintaining multiple excel sheets. The advantage of a specifically designed system is that it can be customized, allowing for publishing-specific functions. For example, assets can be tracked, helping keep track of usage across different editions. Since permissions are usually given for a certain number of uses, automatic prompts can ensure you are never in violation of the law.
In addition, the system can be made to follow rules that ensure compliance with the law, and these can be periodically updated. The people in charge of constantly updating the system based on new legal changes do not have to be the ones actually keying in information, allowing for the efficient division of labour.
All these issues concern only the storing of data on rights, and it’s valuable to stress this component for two reasons. First, a surprising number of publishers — and this cuts across size, region, genres published — still use dated systems of manual storage which could be updated with very little investment. Second, a lot of newer systems will have to be built on top of this basic system, which means unless there is a system in place, talking about more advanced tech would be moot.
Of course we do not want to stop at talking about rights storage, and so important topics to discuss will inevitably include options like Digital Rights Management (DRM) and contract management.
In brief: instead of just storing information, DRM refers to access control technology that sets limits to the use, modification, duplication, and distribution of copyrighted information. Individual assets can be embedded with metadata, making sure the information is available even outside the publisher’s system. For books, this can include software restrictions that control access of assets, such as Adobe Digital Editions’ proprietary DRM, Apple’s FairPlay DRM, and Amazon’s Mobipocket. DRMs aren’t without their critics — it has been argued that their use by the big six publishing groups helped Amazon monopolize the ebook market, but they do sound like our best bet to stem the tide of piracy.
As for contracts, as we have written before, smart contracts using blockchain can digitally facilitate, verify, and enforce an agreement between two parties in a transparent and trackable way. This technology is already being developed and implemented by publishing tech, meaning this is less about a theoretical possibility and more about shaping current tech.
Clearly, there are emerging technologies from which we cannot remove our gaze. But as exciting as ideas like DRM and smart contracts are, too often these are thought about in isolation instead of as components in a complex publishing ecosystem. To combat this, we need to contextualize these by thinking about the less shiny aspects of rights management — like the databases where rights managers work on a day-to-day basis. There’s an obvious temptation to fixate on the cutting edge of a field, but this might miss out on a lot of the everyday work of publishing professionals that might be less exciting, but no less essential.