ECMS: Electronic Copyright Management Systems

Pedro Isaias considers Electronic Copyright Management Systems (ECMS).

The theme covered by this article is currently a matter for discussion in the digital library arena. Since the birth of the first digital libraries, publishers, authors and information consumers have been debating the best ways to manage access to information. It is within this context that this work is intended to make a small contribution. It illustrates the following points in an objective way:

  • Copyright issues and Electronic Copyright Management Systems (ECMS);
  • Advantages and disadvantages that result from the use of ECMS;
  • Some conclusions and future perspectives.

Copyright and the emergence of ECMS

On the one hand, ECMS are a way of giving answers to worries about copyright questions, and on the other, a way of systematising document information management processes such as: access control, author feed-back and availability of information. The appearance of ECMS (not exactly named as such) has happened in parallel to several digital library initiatives (USA) and electronic libraries (Europe). It is obvious that digital/electronic libraries cannot exist without copyright issues being managed. The question nowadays lies in the legal protection of these systems [1]. There has been a lot of discussion in the USA and Europe [2] about this. Should legislation be reinforced or even newly created, or should ECMS be developed and used as a natural way to impose copyright ? [3]

In the USA, the Clinton administration has produced a report on "Intellectual property and the national information infrastructure" [4], the well known NII report which did make explicit reference to the protection of ECMS. In Europe there have been several debates about protecting or not protecting ECMS. One of the arguments against protecting them is that they don't solve all the problems, since they impose financial barriers and access restrictions.[5] Since no legislation protects ECMS, nothing stops someone who wishes to circumvent these systems of actually doing it, without any legal sanctions. But even if ECMS are not explicitly protected by law, one has to point out the role which they can perform in imposing and applying copyright.

ECMS can enable the following: the control of the number of copies; printing and undertaking any other actions upon a work; what can be done with a work (for example: only permission to view); not to change a work (without permission).

Advantages and Disadvantages

The initiative of an author to authorise his work to be digitised can have benefits and also carry risks. Among the benefits are the opening up of new markets and new opportunities to publicise the work (and offer better access to it). Among the risks are the danger of unauthorised copies and unauthorised use of the work. In the context of document information management, we can view ECMS as a necessity and an imposition. However, ECMS have advantages and disadvantages.Advantages are:

  • ECMS gives authors feed-back from statistics for reading/searches of their work in real time - This makes it possible to have in a organised and systematic way statistics on how many people accessed a certain paper, for instance, or an image or diagram in a specific work. This can ultimately help the author to determine the success or failure of his work and in this way be an incentive (or not) for the author to produce further works;
  • New source of revenue for authors - In the absence of ECMS, authors would publish their works in the traditional way (i.e. paper magazines, scientific journals) or on the Web, making them available mostly free of charge. With the emergence of ECMS, authors can have a new source of revenue that can be complimentary to traditional publication;
  • Incentive not to copy - Quite often, due to the small imprints of certain works, there are many works with limited numbers of printed copies in the face of what is really required by the market, and they therefore sell out quickly. As a result of this, the unauthorised copy will necessarily occur because people won't be able to access these particular works. With ECMS, the works are always available and this problem won't occur;
  • Access control - ECMS invariably involves an element of security and access control, which enables the restriction of who uses what information. This makes it possible to stop unauthorised use (without prior consent) of the works;
  • More and better contents - There is a tendency with ECMS for authors to produce more (and better) contents once they know that their works may have some sort of compensation (academic and/or financial);
  • Editorial control quality - Since most of the information available through these systems must be paid for, one has to necessarily guarantee its quality - this can be assured by referees.

The use of ECMS also has some disadvantages, which will now be outlined:

  • Restrictions on information access - Once the access and use of the information must be paid for, ECMS are tacitly restricting access to it, since there are several people that will be unwilling (for several reasons) to pay for the information, and thus to be granted access to it;
  • Implementation and running costs - ECMS implementation has several costs, from which the following are taken:
  • Personnel costs - informatics professionals to implement and run the service, and referees to select the works present;
  • Costs of hardware and software - to these costs one must add the costs of developing specific application software and the possible acquisition of complimentary modules to the system.
  • Payment systems not secure - Nowadays there are still reservations regarding some payment systems. A good option is to implement a system where a payment is made in the first place and the corresponding amount is credited into the personal/corporate account that will be used in the future[6]. Another possibility is to go for electronic payment systems (directly or indirectly connected to credit cards), and some of these are still not regarded by certain users as being safe;
  • High complexity of some access control and payment means - Some of the available options of access control and some of the available payment mechanisms are complex to use, which in practical terms may deter some people from using them, or of using them incorrectly;
  • No privacy - Most of the ECMS include a user behaviour control component: what they acquire; preferred contents/works; rates of usage of the system. This data may be transmitted to publishers and/or to authors, and in this way, break users' privacy. In this context, the identity of the users should be anonymous; but this raises questions related to certain payment systems which require user authentication, for instance.

Conclusions and future perspectives

Several questions arise when considering ECMS. In my opinion, most of the important ECMS issues are still not resolved completely. In the copyright arena, as a whole, ECMS are a very complex issue and it is my belief that it should be ECMS that makes copyright be implemented and not copyright that protects ECMS in the future.

The advantages and disadvantages of ECMS were discussed. From the advantages listed in this article, one can conclude, however, that it is far better to implement and use the ECMS reality widely. Some of their disadvantages, like the non-trustworthiness of some payment systems and their complexity in some cases, are a reality that will certainly evolve into more reliable and easy solutions - it is a matter of time. The privacy issue is, in my opinion, by far the most difficult to solve - but nowadays when we have cookies and intelligent agents sensing and recording our behaviour on the Net, will this still be a problem?


[1] Oppenheim , C. (1996): "Legal Issues associated with Copyright management Systems", Ariadne Issue 2 -
[2] European Commission (1995): "Green Paper Copyright and Related Rights in an Information Society"
[3]Angell, D. (1997):"The Copyright Question - Making the Net Safe and profitable for Copyrighted Content", Internet World magazine vol.8 nº 1 -
[4] Working Group on intellectual property rights, information infrastructure task force. Green Paper: Intellectual property and the national information infrastructure (September 1995)
[5] it is common that users reject the use of complex computer systems
[6] an example of this system is the INFOLINE system from the Portuguese National Institute of Statistics (INE)

Author Details

Pedro Isaias
European projects manager at ISEGI - New University of Lisbon and Professor at Portuguese Open University

Date published: 
Tuesday, 22 June 1999
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