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Copyright's New Digital Guardians

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A high-stakes battle is raging in cyberspace over copyright protection. Traditional book publishers, record companies, and moviemakers want extensive copyright safeguards on the Net. Netizens protest that such rules can be arrogant incursions into a medium based on free access to information. Yet even as they tussle, both sides hope that new technology will bridge the divide between them--offering ways to prevent the theft of copyrighted work without clamping down too hard on Net ways.

Publishers often view encryption as the magic bullet. But using encryption to protect electronic data is like securing the barn with a high-tech combination lock. The lock is all but impossible to open without knowing the combination, but once the barn door swings wide, the animals are loose and forever beyond control. With a few keystrokes, a decrypted document can be dispatched via the Internet to thousands of recipients, each of whom can relay more copies to more people. For copyright owners, it's the ultimate nightmare.

Now, there's a new generation of copyright guardians that promises eternal vigilance (table). But while many different schemes are emerging, "there probably is no absolute fix," says R.M. "Chick" Hayden, director of Information Infrastructure Programs for the American National Standards Institute. "The folks bent on copying will always figure out a way to do it."

What the new gizmos can do, though, is nail the offenders. Digital signatures, for example, are the electronic equivalent of a watermark. And encrypted "containers," when opened, commit the user to a binding contract. Both technologies can trace the illicit copies back to the source.

For example, digital signatures can be embedded as holographic data in a video clip, sound recording, or graphics image. The individual bits cannot be seen or heard, and they are virtually impossible to remove, because they are randomly sprinkled throughout the document. There are so many hidden bits that the signature will survive even repeated analog-digital conversions, say scientists at NEC Corp.'s research laboratory in Princeton, N.J. So playing digital music, rerecording the sounds, then digitizing the copy won't eliminate the hidden tags. Digimarc Corp. in Portland, Ore., and DICE Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., make similar claims for their products.

The holographic approach will not work for software programs or computer-generated text files, however. Changing even one bit in such documents alters the content and would inject errors into a text file--and would certainly render a computer program unusable. The solution: software boxes that can be pried open only when the user agrees to a purchase deal.

AUTOMATIC PAY. These digital packages are designed to ensure that whenever a user calls up a program or data, the creator or publisher gets paid--automatically. IBM calls its version Cryptolopes, from encrypted envelopes. Electronic Publishing Resources Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., offers DigiBox. And Release Software Corp., in Palo Alto, has AutoPay. These digital containers include software with information about ownership plus constraints on the information's use and related pricing plans. For example, a user can be offered a range of options, from buying an entire file for unlimited use to purchasing just a portion for one-time inclusion in a management report.

More variations on these themes are coming. The Copyright Office is in the process of testing a system developed by several universities working with the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) in Reston, Va. The European Commission is developing an approach dubbed Imprimateur, which is short for Intellectual Multimedia Property Rights Model & Terminology for Universal Reference.

And so-called information-metering, or pay-per-use, systems seem to be catching on in business-to-business transactions, despite their vulnerability to the barn-door syndrome. "Corporations really aren't interested in stealing information," explains Thomas H. Lipscomb, president of Infosafe Systems Inc. in New York--at least not when information is offered at a fair price. "The relationship is what's important."

While the problem of protecting digital copyrights hasn't been solved for all time--and may never be--the hand-wringing is beginning to subside. John Garrett, who helped develop the Copyright Office system at CNRI before founding his own cyberspace startup, predicts that the Internet will turn out to be no worse than xerography. "Remember how terrified publishers were of copy machines--that people would buy one magazine subscription and make dozens of copies?" he recalls. "It didn't happen."By Otis Port in New YorkReturn to top

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