Implementing a Rights Expression Language

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This is the third and last in a series of posts about managing digital asset rights and permissions. The first post in the series examines underlying rights concepts, while the second introduces four rights expression languages. These posts are based on Demian Hess’ article “Managing digital rights with rights expression languages”, which appears in the Autumn/Fall 2015 issue of the Journal of Digital Media Management.

Rights Expression Languages (RELs) provide a standards-based mechanism for recording the rights attached to digital assets. The advantage of RELs is that information can be exchanged and analyzed with automated processes, thus reducing the time and effort required to determine where and when assets can be used.

In previous blog posts, I described four well-known RELs and examined concepts that are common to all rights languages. If an organization is considering adopting a REL, its first step should be to develop a clear business case for why it needs to change its rights management process. Specifically, the organization should assess the limitations of its current processes and document the tangible benefits it expects to gain by implementing a REL. Cost is an important consideration in this analysis, including:

  1. What legal costs and penalties does the organization currently incur due to rights violations?
  2. What are the staff costs of manually reviewing rights information?
  3. What is the cost of creating and maintaining ad hoc, proprietary systems to collect and deliver rights information?
  4. What is the opportunity cost of relying on manual or proprietary rights management processes in terms of deals that could not be closed and assets that could not be monetized due to the lack of timely rights information?

After establishing a business case, the organization must document its rights requirements so that it can choose an appropriate REL. Stated another way, organizations need to analyse and then develop a model that describes what assets are licensed, the parties that participate in the licensing, and the terms of the licenses. The enterprise should consider:

  1. What legal rights apply to assets that are produced and acquired? Specific legal rights include:
    1. Copyright
    2. Related rights
    3. Moral rights
    4. Privacy rights
    5. Property rights
    6. Indigenous rights
  2. What types of assets are licensed and how are those assets used?
  3. Who are the parties involved in the licenses and what are their roles?
  4. What obligations are specified in the licenses?
  5. What actions are permitted and what conditions limit those actions?

Once a rights model has been developed, the organization can assess whether existing RELs are able to express the terms of the model. As previously discussed, RELs are often created to satisfy specific use cases that may not be applicable to all organizations. A set of candidate RELs should be selected that align with the organization’s main rights needs. Each candidate REL should then be used to “mark up” a set of typical licenses.

After winnowing the field to one or two RELs, the organization should build a proof of concept (POC)  or engage a vendor to configure a commercial system as a paid POC. The goal is to generate, store, and query licenses in the target vocabulary. As part of this testing, the organization should define typical queries and reports that are needed internally and by external partners. Important questions at this stage include:

  1. Can the POC support the required queries and reports?
  2. How much manual intervention is required to convert licenses into the REL syntax?
  3. Can external systems consume the output from the POC?
  4. What will it cost to build/license and maintain a full production system?

There can be little doubt that more efficient handling of rights will yield dividends for most companies. In 2014, for example, Miramax reported that it was able to increase revenue from $40 million to $240 million through the implementation of a better rights management system, chiefly because it could do a better job of identifying new licensing opportunities. RELs can play an important part in this transformation, but digital asset managers must first educate themselves as to the specific benefits and limitations of this technology. When digital asset professionals have a firm grasp of rights management concepts and the nature of RELs, they can help their organizations make informed decisions and spur continued innovation and improvements.

Demian Hess About Demian Hess

Demian Hess is Avalon Consulting, LLC's Director of Digital Asset Management and Publishing Systems. Demian has worked in online publishing since 2000, specializing in XML transformations and content management solutions. He has worked at Elsevier, SAGE Publications, Inc., and PubMed Central. After studying American Civilization and Computer Science at Brown University, he went on to complete a Master's in English at Oregon State University, as well as a Master's in Information Systems at Drexel University.

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