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IEEE explores Digital Rights Expression Language Standards

The continued, global wrangling over intellectual property in the digital age does not just pass the elearning world by. Whichever position you take on the sort of policy that should dominate, there needs to be some means to assert policies over educational content and applications. Which is exactly what the IEEE is starting to explore in a new draft white paper.

Since we've been doing without rights management systems more sophisticated than the odd copyright notice, you may well ask why it is necessary to adopt a Digital Rights Expression Language Standard now. The high-minded answer is that it will enable content publishers to monetize their intellectual property without fear of piracy (or fear of having to change a lucrative business model), and smaller self-publishers to be properly attributed. The less charitable answer is the coming into force of the US Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002 (TEACH), which exempts educationalists from some of the more onerous copyright restrictions in return for a demonstrably solid digital rights regime at the school or university.

Whatever the motivation for adopters, it is clear that there is a need for an interoperable, and preferably patent free, way of keeping track of who can do what with which digital material under which conditions. This is not unique to the educational sector, but there are some factors which have a bearing on how digital rights are managed there. As the white paper notes, learning objects are often jointly authored, go through multiple versions and can be aggregated into larger objects. Moreover, the kinds of 'access culture' in which a learning object has to function are quite disparate; from the business that needs to keep track of which department can be billed by another department for a certain amount of use, to the academic publisher who could set a piece of research free after a certain period, to the individual academic who allows her learning object to be used freely for educational purposes, but wants to charge private companies. All of these things mean that an educational digital rights assertion language needs to be able to assert access rights over clumps of small and disparate objects and recognise a wide variety of roles.

From the wide variety of standards that are surveyed in the white paper, Open Digital Rights Language (ODRL) and Extensible Rights Markup Language (XrML) are singled out as potential candidates for the role of educational digital rights expression language standard. In both cases, some extensions or some application profiling (i.e. agreeing an implementation) would be necessary to support all the necessary access roles. In the case of ContentGuard's XrML (currently considered as an MPEG standard), additional ways of expressing contexts of use may also be necessary. ODRL is promoted by a dedicated international consortium, and has been published as a note by the W3C. It's use in learning objects has been widely demonstrated by the COLIS project- most recently in CETIS' Code Bash. Just picking a language is not the last of it, though. Liasons need to be kept with other standards bodies, even if only to keep track of the sort of media that wasn't designed for educational use, but might end up in a learning object nonetheless. Also, rights assertion is one thing, but rights enforcement quite another. That aspect still needs to be explored. Lastly, copyright policies vary markedly per nation and sector, os a good many use cases need to be gathered and tested before anything will receive the weighty IEEE standard stamp.

The "Towards a Digital Rights Expression Language Standard for Learning Technology" paper (Word, 400 Kb) is available from the IEEE website. As this is a draft white paper, comments are invited from all stakeholders.

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