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Publishing industry tackles digital rights

Copyright issues are just as tough when it comes to text and photos as they are for music and movies.

SAN FRANCISCO--There's no Napster for books yet, but creators of text and images still have to deal with a lot of the same digital rights management issues perplexing the movie and music industries.

Publishing industry experts at the Seybold 2004 trade show here considered a variety of digital rights management (DRM) challenges during panel discussions on Wednesday, beginning with the proliferation of schemes for securing digital wares.

eReader, a leader in electronic books, uses a homemade licensing scheme for its downloadable books, with the encryption key for each book based on the credit card number used to purchase the book. Vice President Mike Violano said the system pretty much eliminates public swapping of license keys, while giving broad rights to the purchasers.

"Our DRM is not standard, but we know it works for customers," he said, later acknowledging the approach has limitations in the lucrative educational market. "Not a lot of third-graders have credit cards," Violano said.

Martha Nalebuff, director of strategy and policy for the Windows client group at Microsoft, said the industry needs to find a standards-based middle ground between absolute uniformity and the current jungle of conflicting DRM schemes.

"You don't need the same level of protection for a national security document as a ringtone," Nalebuff said. "I think there's a need for DRM to be optimized for certain types of content, but I think it's gone way too far."

Nalebuff advocated Rights Expression Language (REL), a standard published by the International Standards Organization (ISO), as a good starting point that would give publishers a common framework for communicating their copy-protection intentions. "We've got to have tools that encourage each individual to start thinking about the things they want to protect, and ISO REL is the best way to express that," she said.

Creative Commons, a nonprofit group promoting a "some rights reserved" approach to DRM, espouses similar goals but with different technology. Its approach would embed each document with metadata that tells the consumers what level of protection the author seeks.

Mike Linksvayer, chief technology officer for Creative Commons, said the approach has several advantages, including the ability to present multiple views of the rights documentation--a wordy legal version, a machine-readable version and a "regular humans" version minus the legalese.

"One of the benefits...is that people actually start to understand the intentions the more they see the metadata in the document," he said.

While text publishers face some of the same DRM issues as entertainment studios--consumer acceptance, hackability versus ease of use--the industry also poses some unique challenges.

Educational publishers, for example, face the prospect of a whole product line being wiped out from a few file swaps. Carline Haga, director of the global rights group for textbook publisher Thomson Learning, said the publisher's biggest copy protection headaches come from illicit copies of the sample test questions teachers get as part of a textbook package.

One purloined test key can mean a book has to be junked, Haga said, resulting in a potential loss of $20 million for a popular textbook. "We've seen more and more of these teacher solution manuals showing up on peer-to-peer networks, eBay and other places," she said. "Once that happens, it can kill a textbook...It means we're in a position where our biggest concern isn't protecting the things we sell, but the things we give away."