Education in the digital age is a much more complex issue than one could imagine. It is easy to pronounce words as e-schools, e-classes and e-learning. They sound fashionable and trendy but what do they actually mean? Education in the digital age means that teachers can use new technologies to teach and learners can use new technologies to learn. But the real question is: what do they teach and learn? Is the educational environment ready to shift from old and good paper schoolbooks to digital content? How does the value chain of educational content need to be reshaped in order to create a sustainable market for all key actors: publishers, teachers and learners? And which role do public institutions on both the national and European level play?

The purpose of this article is to highlight the key findings of the OrmeE Project (Observatory on Rights Management for eLearning in Europe; cf. sources) with respect to the management of copyright related to educational content in the digital environment.

Talking about copyright for digital educational content requires, however, a preliminary description of its context. The basic question therefore is: Why is digital rights management a relevant topic for the educational environment? One question, three answers:

First, in the last 5-10 years all European school systems have been deeply affected by the need to introduce information and communication technologies (ICT) in schools. This process has also been driven by EU policy objectives according to the Lisbon strategy: to achieve a harmonized and standard level of “digitalisation” in all economic and social areas (i.e. e-government, e-health, e-learning, e-business, e-inclusion) and to diminish the digital divide between the Us and the European Union.

Second, EU legislation on copyright – in particular on digital copyright – to be implemented at the national level aims to establish a common framework for all Member States in order to further the uptake of the European and global digital content markets and at to maintain at the same time some exceptions for educational purposes.

Third, even without taking into account the previous considerations, a market for digital educational content is actually emerging at it is growing at European level. Its development will probably follow the path drawn by the US.

The legal framework of copyright in the digital era
The penetration of digital technologies (in households, public institutions, offices and companies) means a rapidly growing number of people who can have access to digital information and knowledge. This enables the growth of a market for digital content, both for existing content and new added value services. This evolution process has already led to new problems related to copyright protection. Today digital technology allows perfect and unlimited copying and distribution of content in a quite inexpensive way, and this is true for copyrighted digital content too. As a consequence, the European legislator introduced new regulations concerning protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights with a major role for DRM systems, in particular: Directive 2001/29 (cf. sources) and 2004/48/EC (Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights; cf. sources).

Directive 2001/29 establishes a framework which balances incentives to create and distribute content –serving the interest of the public (and individual users) – with mechanisms ensuring appropriate revenue through the exercise of intellectual property rights.

“Copyright and related rights play an important role in this context as they protect and stimulate the development and marketing of new products and services and the creation and exploitation of their creative content” (Directive 2001/29, Art. 2).

The need for a common system (and a common basis) to regulate the market, to protect copyright and to grant rightholders a fair compensation, is much more urgent, because the existence of such a market for digital content depends on the existence of a “standard” regulation. Only if these conditions will be met, it will be possible to develop economically sustainable business models for the “commercialisation” of digital content. From the OrmeE perspective, this issue is even more significant as the Directive itself allows for exceptions concerning the educational environment.

Despite the stated goal of harmonising national copyright legislations, the implementation of the 2001 Directive has not yet achieved much in making the exceptions in the field of educational uses converge. Member States have made use of the possibility provided for by the Directive to implement several exceptions differently. Some have implemented the text of the Directive literally, others simply kept their national provisions considering them in line with the Directive, other Member states have not yet implemented the Directive, and others deliberately used the freedom of decision left to them by the Directive.

As a consequence what is to be understood as "use for the purpose of illustration for teaching or scientific research" will continue to differ from country to country in different respects. In particular we will have to deal with national copyright legislations that:

  • don’t include an exception in relation to educational and scientific use,
  • do include such an exception in the broadest meaning possible (i.e. in conformity with article 5.3.a Copyright Directive), or
  • do include such an exception but with a narrower scope of application.

Differences can be identified with respect to the following questions:

  • Which acts may be performed (reproduction and/or communication to the public)?
  • What may be used (all works or only certain literary works)? How much may be copied (only excerpts of materials or the entirety)?
  • What is meant by the "for the sole purpose of illustration for teaching or scientific research"? Where is the limit? Has a remuneration to be paid to compensate for the free use?

As long as national laws differ – and it is extremely difficult to foresee whether this will ever change especially now that the Union counts 25 Member States , specific acts related to education and teaching may be allowed by the law in one country but forbidden in another country. It is therefore crucial to find and support best practices that demonstrate the actual possibility to combine copyright protection and effective access to content by educational organisations and individual learners.

DRM and education
Over the past few years, the world of textbook and educational material publishing has been marked by the advent of digital technologies. The ongoing process of innovation and media integration has led to a complete change in the culture industry.

As a result, a new digital educational content market is emerging with a new commercial approach (as has already happened in other areas of publishing, such as legal databases and university publishing): from the distribution and sale of tangible products to the distribution and licensing of intangible products, and from products to the services.

In this new context, the textbook publishers, who once based their activities on the production of textbooks and by this maintained their undisputed leadership in the educational content market, must now seriously reconsider their role. They have to find a way to deal with their new competitors, which include companies specialised in e-Learning or technology companies. These have been uninterested so far in the production of educational material, but now – based on their skills and competencies – they consider the world of educational publishing as a lucrative new business.

Copyright management becomes essential in this scenario – in technical and economic terms as well of an educational content market that can only be conceived in a transnational form, given the enormous potential offered by digital technologies, and in particular, by the primary vehicle for digital content: the Internet. In light of these factors, DRM becomes a topic of discussion – and an urgent need for the entire educational sector.

DRM and the educational publishing industry
In fact, it has already been mentioned that the application of DRM solutions is relevant to the creation of a single market for digital educational material. In this market the players have to make strategic choices as regards the licensing models to be adopted. This requires previous assessment of the sustainability and consistency of available options in the context of national and European regulations. Viable business models have to meet both, the needs of the educational world and the need of economical sustainability for the actors involved, whether they be content providers, aggregators, or distributing intermediaries.

As far as business models are concerned, it is hard to define one best solution, as the players involved and their relationships vary from case to case depending on the target markets and their specific products or services. It is also worth mention that the adoption of complex DRM systems by educational publishing houses is far from being fully developed. On the contrary: they tend to use hybrid solutions, managing certain aspects of the described digital content value chain without setting up an integrated system.

In the following we will examine different business models in order to highlight underlying trends and perspectives.

Model 1: Textbook publisher delivers his own content through his own web site or dedicated portal
This is one of the easiest business models to describe, as there are few players involved: the publisher as rightsholder and the end user. From the DRM point of view this means that the publisher end-user relation is regulated by the license agreements between the two parties. The choice to exploit in-house resources and know-how and to deliver this digital educational content via the publisher's web site or portal is very common among traditional textbook publishers.

In this case all decisions concerning the adopted business model depend on just one single player: the publisher. Once this business model is successful, it is likely that the same content will be delivered according to further business models, e.g. contributing to a delivery system launched by a public aggregator (e.g. Ministry of Education).

Model 2: Textbook publisher delivers his own content through an e-learning platform developed in house
Maintaining a learning platform implies that the digital content delivered (learning objects) should comply with the most common international standards. In general platforms are standardized (mostly Scorm compliant; cf. sources). It would not be wise to develop an in-house learning platform with proprietary formats because the publishers would not be able to deliver the same content in other ways, e.g. by means of an aggregator.

Like in the model described before, the educational publisher is the main player. It goes without saying that an educational publisher must also have strong ICT know-how in addition to editorial and content production skills. This is usually the case when an e-leaning provider is a spin-off of an educational publisher.

Model 3: Private aggregator gathers and delivers third party content
Private aggregators operating in the digital educational environment collect resources not only from educational publishers but usually also from other content providers such as newspapers, TV broadcasters or e-learning content developers – thus granting the user access to a very complex and articulated product.

Educational publishers should be the main content providers because they have the necessary skills, experience and knowledge for the production of educational content. Reliance on an aggregator could also be a good opportunity for small and medium sized publishing houses that cannot afford to enter the digital market by developing their own in-house delivery system.

Model 4: Public aggregator gathers and delivers third party contents
Aggregators of educational content are often private companies supported by a public institution (such as the National Ministry of Education). This institution is usually financing and launching a project for schools granting access to digital educational resources. Often they also finance the purchase of the content delivered on-line.

Educational publishers should play a prominent role in content provision, even though it sometimes seems that public aggregators tend to develop their own educational content (e.g. commissioning resources to pools of experts), thus keeping educational publishers in a marginal position.

It should also be understood to what extent participation in a public aggregator service is linked to some kind of quality certification of the digital material and who is in charge of approving or rejecting the content. This type of selection is usually closely linked to the system of selection and approval of textbooks in each country’s education system. We might therefore imagine a “quality assessment” for educational digital content that regards only the structure of the content (e.g. compliance with international standards, metadata, level of interactivity required) and not the control of the content itself.

Model 5: Gateway
A gateway could be defined as a bibliographic database for digital (but also print) content. This could be a metadata repository of content. Usually gateways of educational resources are “sponsored” by public institutions, mostly in those countries where schools receive funding to purchase electronic resources.

Relying on a gateway for an educational publisher means having a wider visibility and reaching a broader audience. This model presumes of course that the educational publisher has defined his own business model and set up his own delivery system.

Model 6: Textbook publisher provides schools with a bundle of content
This rather uncommon business model implies that a single content provider, such as an educational publisher has at his disposal highly developed interactive content, infrastructures and ICT skills to offer an all inclusive solution to schools. Obviously, the business model can be sustainable only for large size educational publishers, usually as part of a corporate group with assets in other content industries.

Model 7: Content aggregator provides schools with a bundle of content
In general, this solution closely resembles an all-inclusive offer to schools where content produced by different content providers has been structured and “packaged” in order to create consistent lessons. This means that licensing to the end user is totally up to the aggregator which actually sells a product, while educational publishers have to manage economic contracts with the aggregator itself.

Model 8: E-learning environment offers services and gathers educational content
It is rather difficult to classify this kind of business model because there are many different stakeholders along the value chain. Content could be developed and implemented either directly by users or user communities, or by commercial content providers (educational publishers or e-learning content providers), or by pools of experts involved in the project.

This is a very interesting business model as schools, teachers and students are directly involved in the process of content creation and knowledge growth. Therefore they feel more engaged. It is however still not clear how the relationship (even economic) between the parties shall be regulated.

Model 9: E-learning content e-platform provider develops a courseware solution
If, as described in the previous business models, educational publishers tend to play a significant role in the content creation process, this last solution is totally up to players traditionally outside the educational/publishing market. Here the main player is a technology provider specializing in e-learning, developing the technical platform as well as the content (learning object).

Which role might educational publishers play in here? Apart from being targeted clients themselves, they might be able to act as partners for the development of reliable contents.

Bottom line
OrmeE – (Observatory on Rights Management for eLearning in Europe) is an innovative project financed by the European Commission in the framework of the eLearning programme. The project partners are: AIE (Italian Publishers Association), FEP (Federation of European Publishers, TUB (Technische Univeristät Berlin) and Bologna Fiere (Organizer of the Bologna Children’s Bookfair). In other words, OrmeE is strongly driven by the publishing industry perspective, aiming at defining the role educational publishers could (or should) play in the competitive arena of the growing market of digital content.


About the author: Paola Mazzucchi, AIE – Associazione Italiana Editor, is member of the OrmeE team and will take all your questions related to this article, and will, if necessary, forward them to the experts involved in the project. Contact details:

Status: first posted 29/09/05; licensed under Creative Commons