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Our Standards for E-commerce, Part 2: Complications, Comparisons, and Trends

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by Mark Bide, Executive Director, EDItEUR —

Mark Bide

[This is Part 2 in a 2 Part series. To read Part 1, click here.]

Adjusting business strategies in the light of the “switch to digital” necessitates familiarity with the complex landscape of standards. As noted in Part 1 of this series describing that landscape (November 2011), efforts are under way to simplify the implementation of book industry standards. But there are also trends moving in the opposite direction.

One of these involves the management of rights. Ultimately, as the distribution of content moves from the physical to the digital environment, the unit of commerce moves from being sale of a product to sale of a license. This has major consequences.

You cannot sell someone a file; far less can you sell them the work that is recorded in that file. All you can sell is a set of rights to access and use that file and the work that it contains. This is a statement of the blindingly obvious.

You can, of course, choose to license people to make use of that file as if they owned something (including giving them a right to resell it or to give it away) but that is a completely separate issue. In the licensing of digital content, it is difficult not to think in terms of analogies with what exists in the physical world—“lending” e-books, for example. But these are always just analogies.

Every content transaction on the network is a rights transaction. It can never be anything else.

And this is a major challenge because really (outside the collective management sector) no one in the book and journal supply chains has much in the way of rights and licensing systems—certainly not for the comprehensive management of rights and licenses through the complete life cycle.

Publishers have no experience in creating XML license expressions; libraries have no experience ingesting and making use of them. The value has been demonstrated (see, for example, “RELI: A Project to Pilot the Development of a Licence Registry: Final Report” (2009; ie-repository.jisc.ac.uk/478/1/RELI_Final_Report.pdf),  but the lack of system capability is a real challenge.

And this is just the beginning. Projects related to rights are currently in development, including one in collaboration with the Book Industry Study Group’s Rights Committee, which is looking at the potential for communicating rights-related royalty information at a business-to-business level (see bisg.org/committee-1-17-rights-committee.php). However, the sheer complexity and lack of consistency of semantics between different players in the chain looks daunting. Although there is a real communications “pain point,” relieving the pain will be extremely difficult.

Another area of complication has started to become visible in the last few months—subject coding. Within English-language markets, there has been a fundamental dichotomy over the use of subject coding schemes, with the United Kingdom (and other countries, including Australia) adopting the BIC subject categories developed by Book Industry Communication in the United Kingdom, and the United States and Canada using BISG’s BISAC Subject Headings.

The need for a worldwide mechanism for the management of subject encoding is now becoming higher on everyone’s agenda. However, any attempt to converge BIC and BISG may be too little, too late. Such centrally defined subject coding mechanisms, designed primarily to support merchandising of physical books in bookstores, are insufficiently fine grained and precise for the requirements of online discovery—once online discovery becomes the only discovery mechanism open for selling online content.

A completely different (and much more ambitious) project may be needed to develop (or more likely to adopt) taxonomies and ontologies that will enable really effective discovery. Such techniques have already been pioneered by individual medical and scientific publishers (where substantial authoritative ontologies had already been developed), and it seems we may have to facilitate a move in this direction over the coming years.

Messages from Other Media

How has book and journal publishing metadata developed in comparison with what has happened in other media? Some interesting parallels and contrasts may be drawn with the music industry.

Because of the long-established collective management of primary rights in music, some aspects of rights communication have been much more highly developed in the music industry. The need to manage underlying musical works as well as recordings has driven the music rights societies, led by CISAC, to develop an extremely sophisticated (if closed) metadata infrastructure called CIS Net.

However, at the commercial end of communication, the recorded music industry had no specialized e-commerce standards prior to the launch of Digital Data Exchange (DDEX) in 2006. DDEX messages comprehensively cover a wide set of requirements for communication about digital music, including three main sets of messages.

The Electronic Release Notification Message Suite (ERN) supports the communication of information about albums, sound recordings, musical works, and the contracts associated with them—usually sent from a record company or aggregator to a digital retailer.

The Digital Sales Reporting Message Suite (DSR) supports the communication of sales and usage information about albums, sound recordings, and musical works and the financial transactions associated with them—usually sent by a digital retailer to record companies and music rights societies or music publishers.

The Musical Work Licensing Message Suite (MWLI) supports the communication of information about musical works to enable musical work licensing—usually exchanged between record companies or digital retailers and music rights societies.

Some parallels between publishing and the recorded music industry (the “record labels”) are worth noting. In particular, both industries have struggled (and continue to struggle) to manage digital products with systems whose fundamental design is still oriented toward physical products. Both industries have had serious problems with identifier compliance and frustratingly slow implementation. However, the DDEX standards are finally getting considerable traction, and the number of implementation licenses has been growing exponentially as the bigger players in the industry begin to make compliance mandatory.

DDEX has also attracted the interest of the movie industry. The audiovisual sector, although strong in technical content standards, has been late in recognizing the need for specialized e-commerce standards but has recently made a significant move by forming EIDR, a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) Registration Agency for audiovisual assets.

This is the same technical infrastructure used throughout journal publishing (where the equivalent is CrossRef). The development of a pervasive unique identification system for AV is an important step toward adopting a wider set of standards for e-commerce.

Trends in Two Directions

Of course, what this all points to is convergence.

There was a time when it was complicated for trains to cross some borders because rail gauges were not standardized. Currently, we are seeing similar boundary problems between the media on the Internet, and here the problems may be even more acute, because the boundaries may be in our minds, our histories, and our industry structures—but they are not of even passing interest to consumers.

Within the publishing industry, we are seeing divergence and convergence at the same time: divergence because different sectors of book publishing can increasingly be seen as the different industries that they are (although previously united by a single physical product); and convergence because our online channels for marketing digital content are converging with those of other media at high speed.

We are also seeing a growing need for convergence between commercial and library applications—with recognition that, despite the differences in requirements between commercial metadata and cataloging, we need to find ways of avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort.

There are some hopeful signs in this respect. The Library of Congress is using ONIX for Books as a way of substantially increasing the efficiency of parts of its CIP program. And OCLC has developed a mapping tool for managing ONIX to MARC and MARC to ONIX (although it is worth noting that accurate mappings of this kind between schemas with very different structures and purposes are very complex and, without skilled human intervention, are almost inevitably “lossy”).

Looking a little further forward, current joint efforts on interoperability, led principally by the Vocabulary Mapping Project (VMF), may make a significant difference. There is much in common between the library world’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) and the abstract analysis that underpins ONIX, DDEX, and all DOI-associated metadata (i.e., the <indecs> framework). Although much remains to be done, meaningful first steps have been taken.

Even in connection with the main challenge for convergence—the management of rights, licensing, and permissions—there are some hopeful signs of collaboration in a project created and led by the European Publishers Council. This is an area where individual parts of the media cannot possibly continue to work in isolated silos.

Signs of Progress

We are facing considerable challenges in the standardization of e-commerce, and there would be little point in pretending otherwise. But the indicators on my dashboard are steadily becoming more positive.

  • At EDItEUR, we have increased our membership by over 20 percent in two years, no mean feat at a time of severe economic stringency. So far as we can tell, new members are joining because they are either upgrading (from ONIX for Books 2.1 to 3.0) or implementing one or more of our standards for the first time. We are seeing a significant uptick in the implementation of ONIX for Books 3.0 and in implementation of some of the ONIX for Serials messages.
  • The recent inclusion of both Japan and China in the ONIX for Books community constitutes a major step forward in the internationalization of our efforts—and a monument to the original architects of ONIX, which has proved extremely robust as new requirements are made of it.
  • Agreement around documentation of international best practice is likely to reduce international fragmentation still further.
  • Disagreements between the United States and the rest of the world over the implementation of the ISBN for e-book identification may be diminishing, although it might be optimistic to expect a final agreement in the very near future.
  • There is growing evidence of a willingness to move from the venerable and extremely inflexible fixed-format EDI messages toward more widespread acceptance of XML EDI.
  • We see increasing interest in the potential for embedding metadata within the content package itself (as represented by, for example, an EPUB file); the EPUB 3 specification makes reference to the ability to embed an ONIX record within the package (although this is not by any means exclusive). This raises new challenges in terms of data integrity but also holds out the promise of the “self-cataloging e-book.”
  • Interest in the potential for use of ONIX is growing in the library world.
  • There is growing collaboration between the media on development of the essential cross-media infrastructure for managing rights, licensing, and permissions on the Internet.

To keep an eye on standards and metadata developments, use the EDItEUR site (editeur.org) and/or the Book Industry Study Group site (bisg.org). And if you are interested in influencing these developments, consider joining BISG.

Mark Bide is executive director of EDItEUR, the global trade standards for the book and serial supply chains, and a director of Rightscom, the specialist media consultancy where he has worked since 2001. During his 40 years in and around the publishing industry, he has been a director of the European subsidiaries of both CBS Publishing and John Wiley & Sons. To reach him, email mark@editeur.org. This article and the companion piece published last month are derived, with the author’s permission, from “Identifier and Metadata Standards for e-Commerce—Responding to Reality in 2011,” in the Journal of Electronic Publishing (hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3336451.0014.108).

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