In a previous post Web 2.0 and the Integrity of Individual Works I described a situation where, through the normal operations of how information on the web can be copied, referenced, and retransmitted, both content and physical format can be changed in a way that alters the author's original intended meaning. We've come to accept, for example, the simplified view of a source document presented by some web based feed readers when displaying an RSS, Atom, or RDF feed, and we switch to the original view if we feel the need.
Savvy web authors know this and compose documents in a way that takes into account the likely alterations formats will go through as data and metadata are transmitted through the web and displayed via various display systems.
Adjustments don't always work. Because of my eyesight, for example, I regularly increase the font size of text displayed by my Firefox web browser when I'm reading web pages. It really is annoying when the page layout is such that text is obscured by graphical elements or formatting rules that can't adjust to larger font sizes. My least favorite example of this is the Yahoo! Mail Beta program where the folders don't scale along with the folder names and the result is illegible folder names with large font sizes.
Anyway, if I write something that is likely to be changed by the distribution system or by the actions of collaborating authors, what do I own? What if, when I write a blog article (where I display a copyright notice) I come back repeatedly and change, update, and correct the original, and add comments? Do I have a way of knowing if people who read the original will know that I've made corrections or changes?
These are difficul questions. One possible approach to help address them is to develop registration type systems that help identify and describe works and their owners (or creators).
The malleable nature of information is one of the reasons I am skeptical of registration systems that require a point-in-time registration and deposit of a document in order to be able to maintain or express certain rights. It is my understanding that, under U.S. copyright law, works are protected by law the moment they are written. Making me jump through additional hoops must have a strong justification, especially if I am developing works that frequently change or involve collaborative efforts to create and maintain.
I'm NOT saying that registration systems don't have a purpose. If you want to get paid royalties or usage fees you'll need a tracking mechanism of some sort, even if you are incorporating aspects of "superdistribution." Such systems, however, should be designed to support specific transactions associated with works that may not stay fixed for very long (as opposed to static media such as books).
I was thinking about these issues when I ran across a new web site called "esbn.org" that appears to be a spinoff of a technology vendor, BookFob, that has developed an ebook publishing system that combines storage, reader, and delivery mechanisms so that each electronic copy of a document can be tied to the unique serial number of the device. This application appears to differ from the rapid and broad distribution facilitated by the Web and the collaborative nature of some Web 2.0 authoring concepts such as wikis and collaborative authoring tools.
The "electronic standard book number" or "ESBN" (not to be confused with ISBN, the official numbering scheme used by publishers) appears to be a spinoff development that is being marketed as a solution for the identification needs of digital publishers. You register as a publisher or author with the site, create a description of the document you want to "register," and upload the file (sizes are limited during the site's beta stage). In return you get a registration number you can use for a variety of purposes. The technology is slick, a Firefox extension is available, and esbn.org is being blogged about. It's a perfect example of a technology-enabled entrepreneurial approach to solving certain types of licensing and distribution issues. (The lack of information on the ESBN web site [as of February 4, 2006] about the company itself, its funding, its business model, its management, its technology infrastructure, its storage capacity, its backup and security procedures, the numbering scheme itself, and its existing customer base, are of concern to me -- so I've registered to check it out.)
Let's return to the issue of the dynamic and collaborative nature of web based publishing and content management. I'm already undecided about the viability of unique numbering systems in the context of the web since they can be stripped off if they're not embedded with the source document. If they are embedded using a watermarking or encryption system, that has the effect of (a) complicating the authoring and updating process (which negates some of the ease of the "wild and wooly" publishing environment the Web has become), and (b) serious pirates will be able to overcome them anyway, just as serious pirates have negated the effectiveness of audio CD DRM schemes. So registration systems by themselves can provide a false sense of security unless (as with the BookFob) they are tied directly to a secure physical storage device and reader.
Granted, I'm not necessarily expressing the same interests as a commercial publisher or professional author here. I'm a consultant who uses the web to communicate with friends, colleagues, potential clients, and others who might share my interests. Models developed to support other types of transactions might not apply in my case, especially if those models have the impact of impeding, rather than promoting, information dissemination.