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Protecting Intellectual Property on The Internet

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Protecting intellectual property on the Internet is becoming a significant issue for the advertising industry, and for good reason. Advertising agencies and in house creative services spend considerable time, effort, and money on creating words, sound, and images which sell products. The Internet has made it possible to distribute, worldwide, perfect digital copies of these words, sounds, and images, to millions of consumers, and millions of businesses who, at least to some degree, are all competitors.

The potential for abuse is awesome. A business in Sweden, for instance, could copy the HTML code, text, and graphics from the Web page of a similar American business's Web page. It would be inexpensive for the Swedish business to have the page translated into Swedish, and the translation would make it extremely difficult for the legitimate originator of the material to notice this theft had occurred. The images would give the theft away, but the owners would have to find the page first, and that could be difficult if they didn't speak Swedish. Current Internet search engines don't offer translation features, and it will be years before they do.

Still, the advertising industry is in far better position to protect its intellectual property than most industries. Most pirated digital property is used privately, by individuals, which makes it difficult for the proper owners of the material to catch them. Advertising material is only useful if it's available to the public, and anything public on the net can be searched, either manually, or automatically by computer.

Systems are already available which can help owners find stolen material in use on the net. The first generation of these systems targets graphic images, the most commonly pirated property. HighWater FBI, a British pre-press and imaging products company, is currently offering a system called Fingerprinting Binary Images, or FBI for short. The heart of the system, FBI Writer, is a Photoshop plug-in which embeds identifiers in images which HighWater FBI claims will survive "format conversions, compression, resizing, flipping, and file transfers between computer systems".

The unique identifier FBI Writer embeds into each image serves both as a method to prove ownership, and a way for legitimate businesses to look up the actual owners of artwork they may in one way or another find, and want to use. FBI owners can register their identifier with HighWater FBI, and have their name and identifier published on the HighWater Web site. The company gives away two products which detect the FBI identifier. Anyone concerned about the ownership of an image can use these to detect the FBI ID and then look up the owner on the FBI Web site. The price of FBI Writer is just under a thousand pounds (British), and it's good for imprinting 50,000 images.

The next generation of Internet copyright protection systems will provide inexpensive net crawlers that actively search for protected material on the Internet. These automated software "agents" will systematically log on to Web site after Web site and search every page for protected material.

It would be in the advertising industry's best interests to support a few services, but only a few, that would search the net for all of its subscribers. In terms of efficiency, it makes far more sense to run collective searches than have a system in which each business had to search the entire Internet, continuously.

If every company ran its own search system, the Internet would visibly slow down under the extra traffic. In addition, even with hundreds of agents searching the Internet simultaneously, it could take a company years to run a complete search. Even worse, on a net with thousands, perhaps millions, of search agents running loose, what happens to the
validity of Web page hit counts? How can a company tell if a page is being accessed by a real person, or simply an automated search agent? How could ratings services evolve in this kind of environment?

Many difficult issues have to be resolved before the Internet becomes a safe place for intellectual property, and these issues need to be resolved soon. Internet traffic is currently a fraction of what it will be in five years. In terms of commercial use, the greatest increase will be in the number of smaller to mid-sized businesses on the net, exactly the ones who have the least resources to compete. There will be pressure on them to cut corners on production costs, and the untold thousands of commercial images freely available on the net will be very tempting to them. The advertising industry needs to have a copyright protection system in place before traffic reaches this point, or it may find itself in the position of locking the barn door long after the horses have gone.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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