Persistence pays off for agencies seeking electronic copyrights

Two things the Internet has always lacked are a standard system for establishing who
owns a digital copyright and an easy way of contacting the copyright owner.

The federal government, unlike most other publishers, gives much of its data away for
free. But it still claims a copyright on many computer files, including Web pages, data
collections, artwork, sound files and video.

Now the government and other copyright holders are finally going to get a system to
establish and track copyrights. The system works through persistent uniform resource
locators that contain information about digital objects.

Persistent means that a URL follows its object, even if the rights are sold and even if
the object is hosted on a different machine or duplicated across many machines. It sounds
complicated, but it isn’t.

The front-runner to make this happen is called the digital object identifier, or DOI. I
expect DOI to beat out the other evolving technologies for Internet copyright management.

A DOI system is easy enough for any Web manager to set up, and the file details can be
found with a mouse click. The technology doesn’t belong to any one company; it was
developed by the nonprofit Corporation for National Research Initiatives using private and
government grants.

Under DOI, rights holders or their agents could engage in automated electronic
commerce, selling rights rapidly and online.

DOI has three parts: an identifier, a directory system and a database.

An identifier contains a numerical prefix, assigned to each publisher by a registration
agency. Starting at the left, the numbers designate the DOI directory manager, then the
publisher who deposits the DOIs. Next comes a backslash, after which publishers can add
their own suffix numbers for individual files.

The coding is similar to that of the International Standard Book Number. In fact, a
publisher that wants to designate electronic rights to a printed book has the option of
making the book’s ISBN the suffix.

DOI’s directory portion is the resolver, which tells the user where copyright and
other information is. Files that use the DOI will contain a clickable tag that takes the
user to a Web page of information about the files.

If the user must purchase the item first, the page tells how to pay for and obtain the
file. If someone else becomes the owner of the rights, or if the status
changes—perhaps a file is placed in the public domain—the owner merely updates
the directory, not all the copies that may reside anywhere else. The copies automatically
point back to the new information.

To navigate with DOIs, the current scheme requires users to download a Handle System
Resolver plug-in for their browsers.

The final piece of the puzzle, the database, maintains information about digital
objects. The resolver knows where to look if there is more than one database generating
information in response to a DOI query.

There are different ways to connect the DOI to an object. It could be embedded in a
metatag of a Web page where most people wouldn’t see it or in the headers of binary
files such as sound and video.

It could also be embedded in the footer of a page, where a viewer could click for more
information, or it could be attached to an envelope containing a secure document. In the
latter case, the user would have to visit the DOI page in advance and conform to certain
specifications to unlock the envelope.

DOI must still compete against other technologies to win publisher acceptance. The
public-key infrastructure way of controlling files, promoted by companies such as VeriSign
Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is currently popular for securing permission to use
intranet, extranet, virtual private network and electronic commerce applications.

Two other rivals are Information and Content Exchange—an Extensible Markup
Language tracking solution—and the Uniform Resource Names concept championed by the
Internet Engineering Task Force.

For an overview and demonstration of a working DOI system, visit  Look for the downloadable resolver
before testing the DOI tags.

For more information on ICE, visit
  To read papers about URN, visit

Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at

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