Features – Preventing Content from Being Napsterized: New technologies target theft of online intellectual property

J.D. Lasica is a free-lance writer and former editorial director at two Internet startups who’s looking for a new job opportunity in new media.

Spooked by the Napster-led peer-to-peer file-sharing movement, where computer users swap music files and other content in a free-wheeling data bazaar, an increasing number of Web publishers and businesses are taking steps to protect their intellectual property.

During the past several months, newspapers ranging in size from the Albuquerque Journal, to The New York Times have launched online permissions services. An entertainment Web site posted the script of a hot new movie — and installed anti-theft technology to prevent it from being copied to fan sites. A small weekly news site in Arkansas installed watermarking technology to protect news photos from being misappropriated.

These technological approaches to copyright protection, and others, all fall under the broad umbrella of digital rights management. DRM solutions available to online publishers run the gamut from encryption software that “locks down” a site’s text and images to on-screen forms that let users republish or redistribute stories for a fee.

Insiders at the technology companies spearheading the movement to protect copyrighted works say the field of digital rights management is ready to bust out in a big way during the next year.

A survey of the field suggests that DRM solutions fall into four overlapping categories:

  • Reprints and permissions, in which a traditional rights and permissions department extends its service to cyberspace.

  • Encrypted content solutions, where technology companies license software that prevents users from swiping any material a copyright holder deems off-limits.

  • Content distribution, either through a contract with a syndication service, partner or programming language.

  • Copyright enforcement, where software agents scour the Net to search for unauthorized reproductions of intellectual property.

Comparison Chart of Content Copyright Services

Digital Links

Here’s an overview of these various approaches to copyright protection:

Reprints and Permissions

Of the four DRM options available, online newspapers and magazines seem to favor a method that keeps their content freely available but that offers users the ability to license stories and other site content.

Two companies dominate in this space: Copyright Clearance Center, the rights-management behemoth in Boston that represents about 10,000 print publishers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and iCopyright.com, a 3-year-old startup in Renton, Washington.

CCC, founded in 1978, has a natural advantage in size (160 employees, 25 in the online division), resources and history, given its years-long association with the permissions departments at thousands of newspapers and other publications. But it’s been slow to get off the dime in cyberspace. Upstart iCopyright swooped into the vacuum with a sleek online licensing system that made its debut in December 1999 at the Los Angeles Times. This past March 12 the Software and Information Industry Association honored iCopyright’s Instant Clearance Service with a Codie Award for best digital rights management software in the industry.

iCopyright, playing David to CCC’s Goliath, now has a dozen employees and eight contractors after a fierce winter of layoffs that reduced its workforce from more than 100 staffers. Mike O’Donnell, who founded the startup in 1997 before leaving it a year ago, re-acquired iCopyright on April 2 through his Data Depth Corp. and has resumed his CEO role. O’Donnell says the pared-down company now is strongly positioned to expand its service and is signing up new clients at the rate of two to three a day. Clients include CBS MarketWatch, the Albuquerque Journal, Knoxville News-Sentinel, the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., CMP Media, Ziff Davis Media and 30 business journals published by American City Business Journals. iCopyright’s icon appears on 7 million to 10 million Web pages, and company officials say its automated system may issue as many as 500,000 licenses this year.

Image and link: icopyright.comO’Donnell suggests that copyright infringement is widespread on the Net and that services such as his will help both publishers and users navigate the sometimes murky waters of digital reproduction rights. He pointed to the results of a study done by a consulting firm hired by The Wall Street Journal: During a 30-day period it found 36,000 instances of copyright infringement, in which Journal articles were reposted on the Internet without permission.

“People are fairly liberal with their interpretation of ‘fair use,’ but the laws have very specific provisions,” he says. “Among consumers there’s a lot of confusion about what they’re allowed to do. When a business uses content for commercial purposes, they generally understand that a publisher deserves some reasonable compensation.”

Here’s how the iCopyright licensing service works: Users click on the icon or the accompanying text at the bottom of a Web page. Then they’re guided through a series of selections that offer all available clearances with terms and prices established by the publisher. If the user accepts the terms, she’s instantly e-mailed a license to republish, reuse or redistribute the article. While the traditional method of obtaining reprint permission could take days or weeks, the online system cuts that time to two or three minutes.

For customers who want a reprint of a Web article, the technology sucks the content out of the site’s HTML format, strips out the ads, navigation and other extraneous elements, and delivers it in a sleek Adobe Acrobat PDF, HTML or e-mail format. The online permissions form also covers photocopies of the print edition of the newspaper.

Image and link: iCopyright.comAt the Albuquerque Journal, which launched the service last September, the paper charges 20 cents to send a formatted copy of an article to more than one recipient and $100 to republish an article on another Web site for a month. The Journal seems to have gotten carried away, though, by also charging for the publisher’s permission to link to a Journal article. It’ll set you back 50 bucks, and the link stays live for only seven days — not necessarily the best bargain on the Web.

Donn Friedman, the paper’s technology and production manager, says that before the new system was implemented, the paper’s executive editor signed off on every permissions use. “This service gives readers a fast turnaround and 7-by-24 support,” he says. As for the fees for linking, he says, “The law is unsettled. There’s no clear-cut right to deep-link to another site. By granting this permission, we’re saying you have our blessing and won’t be subject to any litigation.”

Friedman says perhaps 100 users a week click on the icon, and a small percentage of them actually order. “We haven’t seen a revenue stream yet,” he says. “At this point it’s a customer relationship management product.”

That lack of widespread user acceptance has prompted the latimes.com to ditch the service. “We’re drafting the goodbye letter right now,” executive producer Elaine Zinngrabe says. The paper, which has used the service for staff-written stories, expects to phase out the service by May and replace it with a link to the paper’s rights and permissions department.

CCC’s Matching Service

The New York Times, meantime, is moving in the opposite direction. The Times’ Web site introduced the CCC’s new online licensing system in its Business section March 23 and plans to expand the service to all other sections of the site in subsequent weeks.

The simple text link, under a heading marked Reprints & Permissions, takes the user through a step-by-step process similar to iCopyright’s service. The Times’ licensing structure, largely based on its existing rate card, has some interesting twists. For example, the paper charges $300 to reprint an article in a print newsletter, regardless of whether it has 20 subscribers or 199,999. It generally charges $400 to reprint an article in a book and $600 in a national magazine.

“We’re still working out the kinks,” admits Peter Simmons, director of The New York Times Agency, who’s in charge of implementing the new system.

Image and link: New York Times reprint permissionsSimmons says the Times launched the service for four reasons: to serve readers who need quick access to reprints, to streamline the internal approval process, to capture the modest-sized one-offs that would be impractical to handle individually, and to educate users about copyright permissions.

“Digital media make it easier for people to copy things,” he says. “We want people to stop and think about what their obligations are and who they’re affecting if they reuse something. We think most people want to do the right thing.”

The Times’ service applies to staff-written stories but not stories from the wire services. The service does not extend to photos because of the complexity of image licensing, Simmons says. The Times is still hammering out e-mail permissions, but soon you’ll be able to pay for the privilege of e-mailing an article to more than 20 recipients.

The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe, two more longtime licensing partners of the CCC, will follow the Times’ lead in the coming months. (A precursor of the service is already online at Dow Jones’ djreprints.com.) A European version of an online copyright clearance service is offered by Info2Clear.

Encrypted Solutions

Providing instant licensing isn’t the only copyright solution available to Web publications. Encryption offers another approach.

Alchemedia Technologies, a San Francisco startup founded in 1998, describes itself as a security company that specializes in safeguarding information through the use of software technologies that prevent the unauthorized redistribution of text, photos, PDF documents, multimedia and other content. Its Clever Content software package disables a user’s ability to print, copy or forward anything that the Web site operator deems off-limits.

One client, Photo District News, the monthly business magazine for professional photographers, uses Alchemedia’s software to protect full-size images by world-famous photographers on its 20th anniversary Web site. Try to right-click and copy a photo and you’ll be foiled.

Last November another Alchemedia client, Fox Home Entertainment, built a Web site to generate excitement about the DVD and video release of its “X-Men” film. Fox wanted to make it a destination site for the throngs of young X-Men fans and decided to post the movie script and lock it down to prevent it from being posted on scores of fan Web sites. “Without that protection, they would have lost control of the content and lost all those eyeballs,” says Fred Bullock, Alchemedia’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing.

Both the CCC’s Miller and iCopyright’s O’Donnell suggest that newspapers and magazines aren’t in the business of keeping their content locked away. Encryption technologies might be useful for trade journals or market-research companies that issue reports that cost $3,000 to $7,000 apiece, they say, but not for news publications.

Counters Bullock: “The more traditional media companies are realizing they’re sitting on a treasure trove of valuable content. An online news site might decide to allow universal access to all site content, and anything over two or three days old you could make available for a small fee. We sit down with each client and advise them to be discriminating. You want to be selective in protecting your most valuable assets rather than taking a sledgehammer approach and locking down everything.”

He says the field of digital rights management is expanding from its traditional purview of protecting commercial copyright to a broader role of helping maintain the integrity of information on a network to ensure that it’s not altered in any way. For example, Clever Content protects information on company intranets and extranets as well as the Internet. America Online, AC Nielsen and other companies use the software to protect their online market research.

The developers of News Industry Text Format (NITF), an XML-based vocabulary for defining news, and NewsML, an XML encoding for managing multiple news objects, have incorporated digital copyright protection into the standards. News providers can code documents to include representation of copyright holder and year. More information about NITF and NewsML is available at the International Press and Telecommunications Council site. NAA is a founding member of IPTC and has been very active in this project.

Content Distribution

Authorized distribution of online content takes many forms, from partnerships such as MSNBC’s licensing of The Wall Street Journal business stories to arrangements with syndication services such as Screaming Media and iSyndicate to distribute articles to hundreds of corporate, content and community sites.

Still another approach is being pushed by ContentGuard, a Xerox spin-off in Bethesda, Md., that has partnered with Microsoft. Its crown jewel is XrML, a computer language the allows content owners to tag any content — text, image, video, song — with license and copyright information. Developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, XrML (eXtensible rights Markup Language) is an open standard that works across all computer platforms.

With ContentGuard’s software solution, says company president Ranjit Singh, a publisher can decide not only how to protect its digital content, but how to distribute and market it as well. Material can be sold for a flat fee for perpetual viewing rights or rented for a certain time period or a specified number of viewings. Repeat customers could receive a discount. Advertising could be included in the package.

The process doesn’t end with the initial transfer of the work. The end user could be granted redistribution rights specified by the publisher. If a text document is licensed so that a user can give it away free to as many as four people, the tag would render the file useless once it’s passed to a fifth person. Or, say, a person who purchased an electronic book could forward it to her friends, but only the first three chapters would open and her friends would have to follow a link to the publisher’s site to purchase rights to access the rest.

In essence, XrML consists of an encryption engine with a built-in online cash register. After the content is encoded, the user must use a key, or password, to see it — presumably, after forking over some dough, filling out a marketing survey, providing an e-mail address, or the like. ContentGuard receives between 4 and 10 percent of a typical transaction.

“For the first time, the content owner has the flexibility to control and specify how content may be used by the customer, and the content owner can track it, seeing everyone who touches his material along the distribution chain,” Singh says. “We can keep the honest people honest and turn the pirates into honest people by turning them into authorized redistributors.”

The company has recently begun expanding into the digital audio and streaming video markets. It’s now eyeing other clients, such as online news publications seeking to make content and images tamper-proof, magazine publishers or broadcast divisions looking to monetize their archives of images or video footage, and companies seeking a greater degree of security for their internal memoranda.

“The interest among the media industry is huge,” Singh says. “We’re hearing from more and more media companies that say they don’t want to be Napsterized. There’s a realization that as people redistribute their content, there’s a dilution of the brand, from the corporate logo to that particular exclusive photo from 1960 that you may not want lifted.”

Another DRM company that straddles the line between copyright protection and content distribution is Reciprocal, a clearinghouse service in Buffalo, N.Y. Marketing director Walter Walker sees opportunities for media companies to license video, audio and text content by offering users a “pay-per-view opportunity.” For example, content sites that begin to offer premium tiers of content available to subscribers will need to find a secure way of doing so. The biggest payoff may come in the form of mobile handheld devices a couple of years down the road, he suggests.

“If I’m the Los Angeles Times, I’d want to be able to control my content and know where it’s going and who’s sharing it with others,” Walker says. “This has the potential to open up an enormous marketplace of peer-to-peer file sharing by turning users into distributors, and that should be hugely exciting to all of us in marketing and media.”

Copyright Enforcement

The editors of two weekly newspapers in central Arkansas don’t consider themselves early adopters of cutting-edge Internet technology. But starting in March, the 113-year-old The Sheridan Headlight and its sister publication The Bryant Times began watermarking their photographs.

Image and link: Digimarc“We’ve had free-lance photographers express concern about their images being ripped off,” says Kristin Webb-Walker, managing editor of The Sheridan Headlight. “Watermarking adds an extra layer of security. If someone downloads a photo and it gets passed along over the Internet, we’ll be able to spot it, and as people learn about the technology they’ll be able to find out who took the picture and trace it back to us. That makes us feel a little bit better.”

While encryption technologies lock down content or images by setting down rules on who can see it, watermarking lets digital or analog content such as images, song files, video and documents to flow freely out to a wide audience with an accompanying invisible fingerprint — an imperceptible bit of code embedded into the content. (A sister technique, visible watermarking, is also used but less common.)

A photographer, stock agency or news publication could embed the name of the image’s copyright owner, company and contact information, which would be invisible to the naked eye but seen with watermark detection programs such as Adobe Photoshop. Spidering software offered by the industry leader, Digimarc of Tualatin, Ore., then trolls the publicly accessible Web looking for images containing the hidden watermarks and reports instances where the image has been duplicated.

“Communicating the copyright helps keep honest people honest, and providing a link back to the owner facilitates licensing and commerce opportunities,” says Larry Trevarthen, Digimarc’s director of image product marketing.

He cites a recent example that surfaced during the annual meeting of the American Society of Media Photographers. “One fellow stood up and mentioned a series of photos taken by a friend on the Amish community. Well, one day he was driving through the Midwest. He stopped at a small store and happened to spot his friend’s photo on a package of cheese. The company somehow came across the image, felt it conveyed the old-time feel they were after, and blasted it all over their products — without tracking down the photographer. So he’s now going after the cheese company. Had he used watermarking — and the company probably would have checked before using the image — all this could have been avoided.”

Watermarking technology has been used by Digimarc since 1996, and while it has won praise from photographers, it has not been widely embraced by the online publishing industry. An informal survey of managers, editors and photographers on the online-news mailing list suggest that with the processing of hundreds of images every week, online news staffers don’t see copyright violations as a serious enough issue to warrant the extra production time that watermarking entails. In addition, a rash of articles in recent years suggested that image manipulators could easily thwart watermarking protections.

Read more about digital watermarking on the New Media Music and New Scientist Web sites.

Still, some newsrooms are interested in taking a closer look at the technology. George Wilson, director of photo technology at The Daily Oklahoman, says the paper visibly embeds the name of the newspaper and a copyright symbol onto the bottom of staff photos on The Daily Oklahoman Web site, but the photographers find the practice “just plain unattractive.” He says an unobtrusive solution that could trace stolen images, or encrypt images to prevent copying, would be ideal.

Another company, Copyright.net of Nashville, Tenn., takes a more direct approach to copyright enforcement by prowling the Net as a digital policeman. Once it locates a hard drive transmitting music files to other Internet users — think Napster — the company’s Copyright Agent software robot notifies your Internet service provider to turn off your online connection until you remove the offending copies. The company, which served more than 1 million copyright violation notices to Internet providers last year, is now approaching media companies seeking to protect text, audio, video and other content.

“Consumers have gotten the impression that what they’re doing is legal because nobody’s stopping them,” says company CEO Tim Smith. “By serving notice, we’re educating users that there is a violation. Just because something’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free for the taking.”

Comparison Chart of Content Copyright Services





San Francisco, CA


Its Clever Content software encrypts images, text, multimedia and documents to prevent unauthorized duplication.

Warner Bros., Fox Home Entertainment, Terraserver.com

Bethesda, MD

April 2000

Businesses can manage rights to digital content ranging from books, music and video to documents, games and software.

McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, John Wiley & Sons, MIT Press, Aberdeen Group

Copyright Clearance Center
Boston, MA


Its online permissions service offers instant licensing and delivery of Web and print content under terms and fees set by the publisher.

10,000 print publications, including NY Times, Wall St. Journal, Boston Globe

Nashville, TN

March 1999

It hunts down Web sites and networked hard drives that offer unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted works.

Roy Orbison Music, Blueberry Hill, Jennifer Warnes’ label

Tualatin, OR


Its watermarking technology prevents theft of images, multimedia and documents by embedding an invisible code that can be tracked on public Web sites.

National Geographic, Time

Renton, WA


Its Instant Clearance Service offers instant licensing and delivery of Web and print content under terms and fees set by the publisher.

CBS MarketWatch and 300 other publications

Buffalo, NY


Rights clearinghouse provides digital rights management solutions for the entertainment, music, publishing, software and other industries.

Sony, BMG, Houghton Mifflin, Aberdeen Group

Digital Links

The Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal

Alchemedia Technologies

American City Business Journals

American Society of Media Photographers

Boston Globe

The Bryant Times

CBS MarketWatch

Clever Content

CMP Media


Copyright Clearance Center


The Daily Oklahoman


Dow Jones Reprints

Fox Home Entertainment



International Press and Telecommunications Council


Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel

Los Angeles Times


News & Observer


The New York Times on the Web

Photo District News


Screaming Media

The Sheridan Headlight

Software and Information Industry Association

Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Ziff Davis Media

Posted in: Features, Intellectual Property, Internet Trends