Actor and music lover Bruce Willis recently caused a media furore when it was thought he intended to take on Apple to win the right to leave his iTunes library in his will.

The explosion of digital content has turned "copyright" into a term we all need to understand, and if Bruce is struggling to make sense of it all then he isn’t alone.

Now, more than ever, companies need to know how to protect their own copyright and how to avoid infringing the copyright of others. 

How the Big Players do Digital Rights Management

Many large organizations have already changed their business practices in order to protect their digital assets. Most people are aware that if you download a programme for iPlayer from the BBC it will expire automatically within 30 days, and that if you breach Amazon’s policies for Kindle content then your device may be wiped the next time you connect. Getty Images uses technology to trawl the Internet looking for what it considers to be unlicensed use of its content, which, if found, can initiate a legal-looking demand for payment.

However controversial these policies are (Amazon’s has been called “DRM at its worst”), they do allow companies to protect the assets they own. But what about the rest of us?

Copyright of Digital Assets

We live in a world where almost every individual and company has created digital content, for example photos, videos, comments and articles -- on social media sites, blogs and websites. In most cases they will own the copyright to this content.

Wikipedia describes copyright as

a legal concept, enacted by most governments, giving the creator of an original work exclusive rights to it, usually for a limited time. Generally, it is 'the right to copy,' but also gives the copyright holder the right to be credited for the work, to determine who may adapt the work to other forms, who may perform the work and who may financially benefit from it."

In summary, copyright means that if someone creates original work then they own the rights to it, and if anyone wants to use this content they need to have asked permission from the owner first.

User Generated Content and Copyright

Copyright for user-generated content is a complex subject. Although we can all appreciate that if a passage is reproduced word-for-word elsewhere then that infringes the copyright of the author, it becomes a little greyer when the piece becomes collaborative, for example if someone adds a comment or an image to an article online -- which is common practice for those participating in user generated content sites.

Even if the copyright has been established and all are in agreement, if the original piece has "gone viral," it can be a job in itself to ensure that those who have infringed this copyright are contacted and penalized or at least made to credit the author.

Options for the Rest of Us

Today companies and individuals are creating and using content constantly, for business and pleasure. So how does a small company, without the resources available to Amazon and Getty, track the use and reuse of digital content and manage who owns the rights for it all?

To get it right you need to understand how to protect your own copyright and how not to violate the copyright of others.

Many people think that if an image is in the public domain, for example if it is shown on a website or in Google Images, then it can be used freely. In fact, most images appearing on websites will be subject to copyright if the owner wants to (and is able to) enforce it.

How many people in your company have downloaded an image from the Internet and included it in a report or even on one of your own websites? There’s a fair chance you don’t know -- and they probably didn’t know that they shouldn’t have.

This highlights an interesting point: much copyright violation is inadvertent, i.e. it is committed through ignorance or carelessness.

So education of your employees and website visitors is an important and easy first step. For example, if you don’t want people to copy an image from your website then make it clear that it is subject to copyright. This alone will deter many would-be copyright violators.

The next step is to ensure you have control, and can track, all the digital assets you use in your organization (whether created by you or not) and the rights that apply to each.

How a Digital Asset Management System can Help

A Digital Asset Management (DAM) system enables an organization to create a central repository of digital files, each with associated metadata that can include information relevant to DRM, for example author, credit text and "licensed for" details. In addition, most DAM systems include functionality to:

  • Watermark images and videos before a user receives them, for example so that when the user posts the file to a website the "copyright" details are easily visible.
  • Add a "credit strip" to the bottom of an image or video.
  • Expire assets automatically, for example when a time-limited license expires.
  • Require some or all users to request approval to use certain assets, for example those that are particularly sensitive or a copyright risk.
  • Show users warnings or prominent "usage rights" information at the point at which they download an asset.
  • Embed metadata into IPTC/XMP fields within an image, so that the copyright information travels with the image.

There are many compelling reasons to implement a DAM system, and the need for effective digital rights management is certainly one of them.

For example, take the well-known human-rights organization Amnesty International. It is essential that Amnesty's digital assets are not used in the wrong context. A mistake could endanger the freedom, or even lives, of the people they are trying to help.

Amnesty requires regional-specific DRM, to make sure that an image isn’t shown in a country where it could be seen as sensitive or illegal. And photographers need to be verified and credited so that Amnesty knows that their images are genuine and not propaganda. So as well as enabling Amnesty to efficiently share and distribute its content, its DAM system is integral to its DRM processes.


The ease at which user-generated content can now be created and distributed provides many opportunities and promotes creativity. However, it also creates challenges and risks for companies. More people use and share digital files today than ever before, both professionally and personally, and this trend will continue in step with advances in technology and changes in social attitudes.

Companies need to ensure that they are protecting their own creative copyright, especially those with a business model dependent on their digital assets. And every company and individual needs to ensure that their use of a file does not violate someone else’s copyright. Expect to see an increasing number of court cases as companies get better at tracking and enforcing their rights.

A coherent approach to DRM should be a part of every company’s business policies. Don’t be put off by the seemingly complex nature of digital copyright -- simple techniques can be easy to implement and can be very effective.


Editor's Note: To read how DRM and DAM can work together to create revenue, check out @damnews article, Revenue Generation Using Digital Asset Management Solutions