Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Copyright Management Technologies: The Key to Unlocking Digital Works?

Anne Ramsden brings us up to date with current developments in copyright management technology

Picture of someone sleeping in the comfort of having no copyright problems Digitisation of copyright works and other protected objects has many benefits for the user not least in terms of ease of access, however, for the rights owners it can represent both an opportunity and a threat. It allows materials to be distributed speedily on the networks, increases accessibility and opens up new markets, and yet there is also the danger of loss of sales through unauthorised use and exploitation of these same materials. Recently, there has been a great deal of activity on the part of technology vendors, copyright stakeholders (publishers, authors, collecting societies), academic institutions and libraries, to develop copyright management technologies for controlling access to and usage of materials, for assigning unique identifiers for all types of works, and for marking protected works in order to deter unauthorised copying and re-distribution.

The potential benefits are considerable. Copyright owners gain the facility to collect and distribute fees, and are, therefore, more willing to give permission for the electronic use of their materials. Libraries can track what items are being used and thereby manage their collections more efficiently, and are able to implement accounting and billing mechanisms to recover costs. Users are informed of copyright ownership and the terms and conditions of access.

However, the development of electronic copyright management systems (ECMS) can pose many problems too. From the user’s point of view, a complex system requiring registration and passwords, linked to pay-per-use charging mechanisms may deter use. It is clear that there will be a considerable overhead involved in implementing an ECMS and it may, therefore, not be appropriate for content which is not of high intrinsic value. Furthermore, there is the issue of privacy when a system may track and report to libraries and copyright owners what individual user’s are reading and printing. If the user’s privacy is to be maintained then the technology should enable the user to be authorised but to keep his or her identity anonymous. There are also legal problems raised by ECMS [1]. Firstly, ECMS are, at present, not protected under law and, therefore, there is nothing to prevent someone from developing the tools to circumvent such systems. Secondly, ECMS are not designed to accommodate copyright exceptions like fair use which allow users free access to materials for research and private study in a library. If this provision is to be maintained in a digital environment, should free access be restricted to the location of the library or should remote access to the library be possible?

Copyright management technologies fall into five groups and some systems may involve a combination of the different technologies. A number of trial projects are also identified.

Rights management tools: these are administrative support systems required by libraries (and publishers) to manage electronic permissions requests, chasers and the electronic licences which are the result of the successful negotiation. Two eLib projects, Acorn [10] and ERCOMS, are developing PC-based rights management systems.


Reply from: Paula Kingston - p.j.kingston@lboro.ac.uk
…on the 18th July 1997

I think Anne raises some very important issues regarding the use of ECMS, particularly with regard to sensitive data on users’ activities.

Just for the record, Project ACORN’s system is not only a rights clearance package, but it also tracks and logs usage, downloads this data from the AACORN document database into CLEAR (Copyright-Licensed Electronic Access to Readings) which is a PC-based database running under Microsoft Access.

This database provides very detailed and comprehensive usage information at the level of the individual article and user. It generates reports to publishers, and calculates payments required, if any.

Two UK HE institutions have already taken the database design ACORN has developed and are developing it to meet their own local needs.

The entire ACORN model has been developed with this type of portability in mind, both for the tracking and rights clearance module as well as the system which displays the electronic documents to users. We are about to begin testing the portability of the whole system at Leicester University.

However, what I wanted to clarify was that we do have an established and proven system for tracking and clearance, which operates as part of the ACORN intranet and we are happy to provide further information to those interested.

The issues Anne raises concerning privacy are very important and we are currently taking steps to develop a policy in this area which will provide us with guidelines on good practice, given the amount of sensitive data the system currently collects.




[1] Legal Issues associated with Electronic Copyright Management Systems, Charles Oppenheim, Ariadne Issue 2,

[2] IBM Cryptolope Web Site,

[3] DECOMATE web server and monitoring software can be downloaded from:

[4] ERCOMS Web Site,

[5] DOI system Web site,

[6] BIDS Journals Online,

[7] COPINET Web Site,

[8] NetBill Project at the Information Networking Institute, Carnegie Mello University,

[9] IBM Infomarket Web Site,

[10] ACORN project

Author details

Anne Ramsden,
ERCOMS project manager
Email: ar@dmu.ac.uk
Phone: 01908 834924
Fax: 01908 834929