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Controlling what you e-sell

by Robert J. Boeri and Martin Hensel

Whether you distribute digital content on CD media, the Web, or both, you're engaged in ecommerce (and probably were before that trendy e-term was coined). And by anybody's calculation, the amount of ecommerce-especially Web-based-will skyrocket, with some estimates that within five years it will amount to 10% of U.S. GDP. Ecommerce will reduce distribution costs and stimulate demand, largely due to the ease of digital-especially Web-based-distribution.

On the other hand, recent events with MP3 versions of licensed music emphasize how difficult it can be to control digital products once they've been delivered-like so many sorcerer's apprentices, they can multiply unbidden. Complicating the problem, digital documents may be merely containers for virtually any type of information object-XML, sound, or even video, or the content may exist as only one type of digital asset such as music. Tracking this content and assuring you have reasonable control is becoming increasingly difficult.

Recently solution choices have increased, and some offer control over many types of content wherever it resides. Features now even include supporting subscription, rights management, and workflow. Even low-end solutions are a far cry from a couple years ago when you could purchase what amounted to Acrobat plug-ins with security that was cumbersome to manage and easy to circumvent. Not surprisingly, the function/price performance range has also increased, from a large number of server-based solutions to a very few standalone solutions. Price ranges from a $2,500 one-time authoring fee to over 100 times that figure.

None of the products has yet become a household name. Two-thirds of the high-end solution vendors are recent startups: Authentica's PageVault, Web Vault, and MailVault (for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange); ContentGuard; and Datum's Confidential Courier. PageVault typifies the industrial-strength security products and touts itself for protecting critical information like trade secrets, chip designs, and Merger & Acquisition activities. Authentica's products allow enterprises to retain access control of their business information even after delivery across the Internet. Authentica cites Cambridge Technology Visions (Burlington, MA) as using PageVault to control M&A; information down to the page level, including who can see the document, when they can see it, whether they can copy or print the document, whether they can copy it, and when screen and printed watermarks are displayed. ContentGuard Inc., a spin-off from Xerox (with strategic alliances and investments by both Xerox and Microsoft) combines patented research with an open source XML-based markup language called XRML (Extensible Rights Markup Language). ContentGuard offers a comprehensive solution from workflow to content protection and integrity, rights specification and enforcement, usage tracking, and royalty management. ContentGuard Inc. is working with Adobe to integrate support for PDF technology while Microsoft-an investor in Content-Guard-is developing its own Windows e-book reader, "Microsoft Reader," competing with Adobe's Acrobat Reader.

Confidential Courier, using its own security-patented techniques, can secure a variety of digital assets: Acrobat PDF, word processor, HTML, images, data, and even executables such as EXEs and DLLs. Distributors develop "CourierPak" collections of up to 50,000 files which they can distribute on standalone optical or magnetic media or via the Web. Target platforms include UNIX and the Windows family. Like many systems, Confidential Courier uses RSA encryption. Optional capabilities include the ability to name specific applications that can use the encrypted information, providing expiration dates for encrypted information, and server-based management of keys. If you name a specific application to use the data (e.g., Acrobat Reader), and someone uses Windows Explorer to copy an encrypted file, that action makes the file unusable since only Reader is allowed to open the file.

Adobe's much-touted PDF Merchant (server side) and Web Buy (client plug-in) are not designed for distributing libraries of PDF files nor for distribution on standalone media. Rather they are for distributing individual Acrobat-based e-books. Web Buy is Adobe technology that lets you download encrypted files from the Web and unlock them to read on a single personal computer or reading device. PDF Merchant is a server-based technology that can be integrated into ecommerce and transaction systems. Using a lock-and-key metaphor, PDF Merchant is the lock and Web Buy (Acrobat plug-in) is the key. Adobe has lined up big names to use its technology: Barnes & Noble, Fatbrain.com, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and R.R. Donnelley, among others.

On a smaller scale, SoftLock offers a combination ecommerce and secure Web distribution method, for Acrobat PDF files on Windows platforms only. SoftLock's approach lets you view an excerpt before purchase. If you decide to buy the product (or a gift voucher for someone else), you (or they) download it and associated key files that permit viewing it only on the PC on which it was downloaded.

Want a solution for on- or offline secure distribution of document collections? One intriguing vendor-the only one we know that can also secure large offline collections--is FileOpen Systems. This vendor has a server-based encryption and distribution engine (FileOpen WebPublisher), as well as a desktop solution (FileOpen Publisher) for $2,500 which allows you to secure and distribute your Acrobat documents freely over the Web, email, or CD-ROM. FileOpen Publisher even includes an installer, and your customers need not remember a password to open and use the resulting seamless product. Even with its modest cost, you get industrial-strength controls such as guarantees against unauthorized copying or use, and subscription support so that your documents can be available only within timeframes you specify. FileOpen Publisher's data encryption is performed using its proprietary techniques plus RC4 technology as licensed by Adobe from RSA Data Security Inc. Although FileOpen currently secures only Acrobat content, it plans to extend its reach to other content including XML.

Whether your business involves Web or off-line delivery, Acrobat or other content, secure solutions supporting your ecommerce plans are emerging.

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