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Complex objects, complex rights

September 18th, 2010 Posted in Digital Books, Rights Registries, Transmedia | digg it blank

I was recently asked about how pricing for transmedia book productions might be established, by someone who had listened to my interview with David Wilk at writerscast. This topic is difficult terrain, and rapidly evolving. Not coincidentally, the question came from a CEO at a transmedia (vs. book publishing) company that has recently begun to serve the writers community.

As my friend, Hugh McGuire of Librivox, has pointed out, the transition to complex objects, particularly those that are web native and embed pointers to resources existing across the network, is one that the publishing industry has yet to get its head around. I know that publishers would ideologically like to have these assets bundled into a single physical file (or small set of linked files) for purposes of both ready technical translation and rights control, but I suspect that we will wind up with “narrative experiences” that are actually not wholly “owned” but increasingly have at least some of their aspects licensed for performance rights (instead of having been either commissioned or licensed for broader rights), or that rely on blanket proffered commercial license terms. UGC that is just-in-time and custom-embeddable into transmedia productions will only hasten the transition to more complex rights packages.

Already the issues of advanced publications, like Peter Collingridge’s work (e.g. Apt Studio, in London), are obvious in extremely large file sizes, and this kind of CD-size aggregation is probably not tenable long term for end-user device management as composite assets swell. So inevitably, I think the tendency is toward assemblage of pointers, versus assemblage of assets.

From the limited terrain that I can see, traditional publishers are not well positioned in terms of their competencies to compete in this area, and I think we will find a wide range of new entrants, particularly those from gaming, movie and audio recording and production studios, and other more innovative media groups. The consequences for the further attenuation of digital first sale are obvious, and one can expect that the “publisher” and end user relationship will be governed by restrictive licensing covenants.

The maintenance of rights information for any form of complex asset is difficult, and pricing is tied to accurate capture of rights data and rights attributions. In the absence of any international, distributed rights registry, the requisite tracking of rights data will fall laboriously into firm to firm arrangements, and incur the consequent risk of litigation and constant management as assets are re-used. Even if production companies establish collectives, the management costs will merely be mitigated. This is one reason that I think collecting agencies and their brethren are well positioned to innovate, particularly cross-border, in the development of new services to support new creative endeavors. [N.B.: There is a potentially relevant, prescient 2006-2007 Yahoo! WIPO filing].

From my point of view, another extremely serious shortcoming of the GBS Books Rights Registry is that it looks over its shoulder at publishing’s past, being too focused on historical interpretations of books from the perspective of a narrow range of commercial uses. It is ill equipped to accommodate the world of creation and use that we are heading into.

5 Responses to “Complex objects, complex rights”

  1. bob stein Says:

    wondering what you consider a “transmedia” company today?

    also, although, i agree with you that publishers haven’t wrapped their heads around the increasing complexity of digital rights in a multi-media world, i’m not so sure movie or game companies are much further along. in both cases, although they have more experience with the full spectrum of media rights, like publishers, their experience is in tightly binding those rights to a specific property. i don’t know of any industry which has really figured out how the landscape changes as we shift from an assemblage of assets to an assemblage of pointers.

  2. peebsley Says:

    Good question, Bob. I am not exactly sure what a transmedia company is either, except to define them as an organization that is attempting to combine expressions of multiple communication archetypes into a single entity, which may represent only a point of entry into a hierarchical or interlinked representation.

    I take your point about no-one necessarily being well positioned in this transition.

  3. bowerbird Says:

    this whole system of legalese will strangle itself;
    that is how the dinosaur will die and go extinct…

    your contrast of “an assemblage of assets” with
    “an assemblage of pointers” is a first pass at the
    mammals taking over. now extend it, such that
    the pointers are defined as _user-configurable._

    this is what “mash-up” eventually comes to mean,
    that the end-users exert a large degree of control
    over the state of the story, choosing the materials
    that are used to comprise the individualized tale…


  4. fran toolan Says:


    this is our focus for 2011, and our conference (where you are keynoting) is intended to kick off an intensive 6 month research project into how to capture rights information systematically.

    the biggest problem in my mind is one of semantics. There are too many definitions for the same words. What is a publisher? what is a distributor? what is a territory? what is a work?

    i don’t think that until we have definitions for elements like this (and many others) that we will ever get anywhere. The other problem with rights is that there is nothing to limit what goes into it. A publisher or author or rightsholder might license a right given any set of conditions, that might not yet be foreseen by our systems designers.

    there is alot of work to do!

  5. bowerbird Says:

    that’s it! that’s what we need! another _conference_!

    to kick off an ongoing research project! what a ticket!

    sell corporate publishers rope to strangle themselves!

    while you’re at it, sell ‘em an x.m.l.-based workflow,
    and have ‘em hire extra people as “project managers”
    who are skilled at doing sound and video production.

    because the farther and faster we can push these jokers
    into debt, the sooner they’ll go running from the scene.