A Library to End All Libraries

Publishers are building an online system that will give readers more choices

Record companies have fought digital distribution of music with every weapon at their disposal. They've won a series of tactical victories, but what do you gain if you win a war against your own customers? The record producers might want to take a page from stodgy old book publishers, who are quietly building a system to distribute digital text, which could help see to it that owners of that text get paid for its use. Along the way, publishers are developing a system for locating and retrieving material on the Web--especially the sort of copyright works now found mostly in libraries.

Currently, if you want to steer readers to published material from a Web page, all you can do is include a link to another page. This has some major disadvantages. First and most important, if the destination page moves or disappears, anyone clicking the link will get an error message that gives no help in finding the material. Second, Web-site designers can only link to a single destination, even though they might want to offer readers a choice, say, of buying a printed book or downloading a digital version.

A project with the off-putting name of the Digital Object Identifier for eBooks aims to remove such constraints. Backed by publishers (including The McGraw-Hill Companies, owner of BusinessWeek), professional societies, and tech companies, the approach assigns a unique number, the Digital Object Identifier (DOI), to all published material.

The DOI consists of two parts: a prefix that identifies the publisher, and a publisher-created suffix unique to the work. Books, for example, will probably use International Standard Book Numbers as suffixes. When a browser hits a DOI, it uses the prefix to find the publisher's database, then fetches information that could include catalog data, an excerpt, reviews, and links to places to buy it. (For a demo of the system, see www.doi.contentdirections.com/DOI-EB-Demo/mhindex.htm).

WHO OWNS WHAT? The eBook project itself does not provide mechanisms to prevent unauthorized copying or to handle the flow of payments. Instead, it's designed to mesh with existing rights- management systems. But it solves a problem that has proved vexing in the music arena: the positive identification of content. Napster's creators, for example, want to comply with court orders that their music-sharing system honor copyrights. But they've been frustrated by not knowing who owns the rights to what music. The eBook project addresses that and goes an extra step: Publishers can assign DOI numbers to parts of books so they can sell individual chapters to be downloaded or combined with other material into college course packs or print-on-demand books.

The project is also part of a much broader effort to make Web content easier to locate and retrieve. While books are just starting to join the system, there are 3 million DOIs in use giving live cross-references in online academic and professional journals (for a demo, see www.crossref.org). The underlying technology, called the Handle System, was designed by the government-funded Corporation for National Research Initiatives. CNRI President Robert E. Kahn, one of the original designers of the Internet, describes the mission as "reconceptualizing the Net from the movement of data packets to the management of information."

"SNUBS US." Not everyone in the industry is thrilled with the direction the DOI eBook project is taking. Christopher Warnock, chief executive of the online library ebrary (www.ebrary.com), says the approach "kind of snubs us" by using a more complex system to deliver information that ebrary could provide more simply. He also worries that publishers will have trouble maintaining the sort of databases that DOI demands. (McGraw-Hill is also an investor in ebrary.)

Warnock does give the DOI Foundation credit for a "very ambitious plan." The drawback is, it will probably take several years for the eBook project to achieve critical mass. But if it does, the Web could truly become the world's greatest library, right at your fingertips.


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