Do the right(s) thing

A few weeks ago my colleague Mike Shatzkin talked about publishing as a rights business without effective rights management.

While a range of rights-management solutions support book publishing, they are implemented only sporadically, often as stand-alone systems. Where they do connect with other systems within a publishing enterprise, data sharing typically stops at the front door.

Readers and other content consumers who would like to know about rights are routed to a switchboard or an e-mail address in search of the one human being who can answer rights questions. It’s kind of Gordian-knot crazy.

The settlement reached between the Authors Guild and Google over its multi-year effort to digitize "The Book" requires Google to establish and help fund a Book Rights Registry (BRR). A number of people have expressed concerns about the implications of a “rights monopoly” on pricing, feature sets and market efficiency.

Last week, John Mark Ockerbloom posted an edited version of his remarks at the Digital Library Federation forum. He calls for a “reader’s rights registry” to represent the interests of libraries and their customers in dealing with the somewhat monopolistic BRR.

His comments got me thinking about the nature of rights management systems today. Like most databases, they are repositories intended to tell rights owners and managers what they can and cannot do. We kind of take as gospel that rights owners should control the categorization and uses of their content.

Readers really don’t feel that way. As curators, libraries have given more thought to organization, rights and fair use, but they still want content to be consumed. That’s their business: making it possible for more people to cost-effectively find and interact with content.

As Google gears up to create the BRR gets underway (it has hired Michael Healy as an interim director), Ockerbloom’s concerns may be true for a reason that we take for granted. We understand that the absence of clear data on rights turns intellectual property assets into liabilities (this axiom courtesy of Mark Bide). But the BRR as currently conceived replicates the “command and control” model for rights management that has failed to work effectively for the book publishers who owned the rights in the first place.

Rather than figure out the best way to collect rights information in a closed system, it might be better if Google and the BRR took advantage of this unique moment to try the open approach offered in the work done by the HathiTrust.

Rather than have two separate repositories, one open and filled with content, the other closed and filled with metadata, we could use XML to finally marry content with the metadata that would inform commerce. Then we could safely say we had “solved” the rights problem.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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