D-Lib Magazine
January 2001

Volume 7 Number 1

ISSN 1082-9873

First Steps in an Information Commerce Economy

Digital Rights Management in the Emerging EBook Environment


Eamonn Neylon
Manifest Solutions

Red Line



The delivery of digital content to consumers in a trusted manner allows business models to be tried that are different from existing forms of publishing. Thus rights management technologies take a central place in the development of the eBook ecology by providing the ability to enforce and negotiate usage restrictions. This emphasis on the control of usage rather than access is critical in distinguishing eBook publishing from other types of publishing that have gone before it.

Press coverage of the eBook marketplace could lead readers to believe that an explosion is imminent in this new method of publishing [1]. However, there are outstanding issues that need to be addressed for the current hype to bear some semblance to reality. All stakeholders will need to become active in informing how the eBook evolves as an economically viable resource type.

What is an eBook?

This question can be asked from a variety of perspectives. Many considering this question are concerned with the properties of an eBook, and whether they infer any rights to the consumer of the eBook. But any definition of an eBook must accommodate the role of many players other than just the publisher (rights representative) and the consumer (rights exploiter). The term eBook is really just a misnomer used to represent a new model of electronic publishing -- one where technology has a more pervasive role to play than within the previous electronic publishing genres such as online databases, electronic journals or syndication models. An eBook can be any type of electronic content that is packaged as a discrete unit and can be used with eBook technology.

eBooks are different from other types of electronic publishing because the commodity that is being considered is finite. The established models of electronic publishing rely on the continuing need of the purchaser for access to a changing corpus of information. The means of establishing and enforcing business relationships are known and easily understood -- should a recipient of an electronic journal abuse their access, the publisher will likely take remedial action in the form of discontinuing access to the publication. eBooks are different because they do not rely on centralized control of access.

eBooks are important because they will establish new principles for the commerce of information commodities. What happens with eBooks will have profound implications for the use of information packets. It is unlikely that eBooks will accommodate existing practices (such as the right to return books to a distributor) if such uses would make it easier to abuse a consumer right that is intended to be fair to both parties. eBooks are about usage controls rather than access controls. The business models that can then be built for eBooks will affect how we write, publish, purchase and consume certain types of information resources.

What is digital rights management?

The ability to make perfect electronic copies of digital files and effortlessly distribute those copies in a networked environment is an acknowledged threat to the content exploitation industry. The extent to which this problem is recognized is apparent in the reconsideration of the implementation of the copyright law as enshrined in the WIPO Copyright Directive1. Technology ignores the social imperative that exists in the principle of copyright and instead provides tools to build new models. Existing notions of sales and licenses take on renewed importance in providing clarity to questions such as who owns a copy of content and what privileges are conferred to the recipient of a piece of content. The technical means by which content is dynamically licensed for, or protected against, a particular use is known as digital rights management.

The tools of digital rights management (DRM) do not define how commerce must be conducted. Rather, they allow business models to be defined and support their implementations. Stakeholders in the supply chain thus need to actively ensure that their interests are recognized and incorporated into the models that prevail. DRM is a large field with applications in such areas as the automated degradation of broadcast video signals as they move between systems with different levels of trust. The basic premise behind DRM is that the rights-holder should determine how their rights are enforced. DRM vendors boast a broad spectrum of technologies and applications some of which are hoping to become a core component in the eBook market.

Digital rights management and eBooks

DRM vendors have been actively participating in two industry groups: the Open eBook Forum (OeBF)2 and the Electronic Book Exchange (EBX)3. The DRM vendors see eBooks as a new market ripe for the use of protection technologies. Their interests are primarily in establishing principles from which actual business implementations can be established. Within these groups there is an emphasis on the expression of rights and the enforcement of expressed rights.

eBooks present two interesting problems to rights management systems. These can be simply stated as how to:

  • Express the conditions and usages that are permitted by the rights-holder -- while respecting the pre-existing entitlements of the consumer;
  • Enforce those usage conditions in a range of environments that have different levels of trust -- and are not necessarily connected to an online authority.

The enforcement of rights requires a consistent expression of rights to allow different systems to consistently interpret what is required. Two candidate languages have been promoted as means to achieve a universal means of expressing what is conferred in a sale or license of content. ContentGuard’s eXtensible Rights Markup Language (XrML)4 is a licensable specification for expressing rights in XML based on work conducted at Xerox PARC [2]. XrML has been criticized for its lack of process for developing the language, and there have been concerns about the terms under which the specification may be licensed. Open Digital Rights Language (ODRL)5 is an alternative rights expression language, still in its infancy, which is being proposed by IPR Systems to the World Wide Web Consortium as an open standard to be developed within the established process of the W3C.

Agreeing on a language to express rights is only one half of the eBooks rights management problem. Systems that enforce the expressed usage privileges are the other component. The key enforcement issue is the basis on which trust is achieved between parties trading content. Different parties and content have different needs for certainty in their transactions. It is therefore attractive to be able to reflect the need for assurance in particular circumstances. This can be provided by establishing a trust model, which provides for a range of relationships between any two parties exchanging content.

Identification of the parties involved in a content exchange is essential at high trust requirement levels. But a public key infrastructure, required for verification of identities, is expensive using the solutions available today. The cost associated with establishing a trust system is considerable, and this is proving an issue in moving the eBook market forward.

Current situation

Several problems exist with the two existing options for rights languages. There are no strong conceptual models supporting either language, and both languages have unclear development processes. These problems are the focus of ongoing work within OeBF since a recent announcement of a merger in the activities of the EBX Working Group into OeBF. The World Wide Web Consortium has also shown an interest in how rights should be expressed and is organizing a seminar in Nice on this topic6.

The Association of American Publishers commissioned a major investigation of eBook requirements and relevant standards during 2000. Working with Andersen Consulting, several AAP member organizations considered requirements for identification, metadata and digital rights management and looked at whether available standards and product offerings met the requirements. The findings of this activity were released in November 2000 [3]. The report recommends the use of the DOI/ISBN7 for identifying content, ONIX/indecs8 for metadata and was inconclusive on digital rights management.


New business models, such as peer-to-peer super-distribution, could change the way we access and use content. The future role of current participants in the information supply chain will be affected by how the emerging eBook environment is defined -- something in which those participants can take an active role in shaping. The commercial framework for eBooks will force us to address fundamental issues such as what it is to publish and who can publish.

Digital rights management is often promoted on the basis of how it can protect content from copyright infringement. But digital rights management can do more than simply stop certain activities from taking place -- it can also be used to allow new uses of existing content. The creative use of this technology can reduce the need for protection and increase the reward to intellectual property holders by allowing the incremental licensing of content depending on a user's requirement.

Existing eBooks are an evolutionary step -- for many purposes access to online databases will prove a better solution. Yet distributing content in the form of eBooks is a useful device for exploring how to build sustainable models for creating and consuming packets of content. Interested parties are encouraged to get involved in these developments to help shape the future of what will be one of our primary means of communication.


(1) The WIPO Copyright Treaty directive generally addresses issues of copyright in collections of works (such as in databases) but the important parts for eBooks are those sections relating to the circumvention of copyright protection mechanisms. Legal protection is required as the means of protecting the copyright itself, with certain exceptions such as fair use and research into cryptography. In the United States the WIPO directive has been enacted in law as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

(2) The Open eBook Forum (OeBF) is an association of organizations who share a goal to establish specifications for electronic book systems, applications and products. Known for its work in producing a publication framework, the forum is now engaged in all aspects of eBook development from technical specifications to market evangelism.

(3) The Electronic Book Exchange (EBX) Working Group is an organization of companies developing a standard for protecting copyright in electronic books and for distributing electronic books among publishers, distributors, retailers, libraries, and consumers. The EBX specification is content format agnostic.

(4) The eXtensible rights Markup Language (XrML) provides a method for specifying rights and issuing conditions associated with the use and protection of content. XrML is a specification licensed on a royalty-free basis to encourage inter-operability. XrML facilitates the creation of architectures for rights management of digital content in all media.

(5) Open Digital Rights Language (ODRL) provides the semantics for rights management expressions pertaining to digital assets. ODRL is a vocabulary for the expression of terms and conditions over assets. It is intended that ODRL will be standardised via an appropriate, open, and non-competitive organisation with a public process for the future maintenance of the standard. ODRL has no license requirements.

(6) The W3C Nice Workshop will explore existing technologies and new approaches for Digital Rights Management on the Web. The workshop will consider DRM issues across multiple sectors and communities with a view to enabling the Internet to deliver trusted rights management services. The intent is to find and highlight expressions, processes and methods for DRM applications that could be the subject of a W3C Activity Proposal.

(7) The new standards specify a numbering system based on the IDF's Digital Object Identifier, an internationally supported system ideally suited for identifying digital content and discovering it through network services. The numbering recommendations allow for identification of eBooks in multiple formats and facilitate the sale of parts of eBooks, and they also work with existing systems such as the ISBN to allow publishers to migrate to the new system.

(8) The metadata standard recommends extending ONIX, the existing standard for printed book supply chain metadata, to include information needed to support the new numbering system and eBook-specific fields.


[1] Robert Hertzberg, David Card, Marc Johnson, Nikki Dannenberg and Vipul Patel, EBooks: An Emergent Opportunity, but Stephen King Is Not the Model, Jupiter Communications, August 30, 2000, <>

[2] Xerox Corporation, The Digital Property Rights Language, Manual and Tutorial - XML Edition, Version 2.00 - November 13, 1998, <>

[3] Association of American Publishers, Digital Rights Management for EBooks: Publisher Requirements, Version 1.0, 2000, <>

Copyright© 2001 Eamonn Neylon

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DOI: 10.1045/january2001-neylon