A few weeks ago, a flurry of articles announced the death of DRM-protected music and questioned if watermarks would take their place. Wired ran as good an article as any – DRM Is Dead, But Watermarks Rise From Its Ashes. The response has been mixed, with negative views prevailing. A good balanced argument was written on ZDNet Blogs 2 years ago – Watermarks: A better DRM than DRM itself?

Regardless of whether or not watermarks become common place to track music and video downloads, I can think of an application that I’d love to see embrace watermarks – document management systems… in fact, any store holding content that can be indexed and/or shared around.

One of the biggest bugbears for many organisations is the duplication of content. Documents get emailed around, stored in multiple places, each copy gets edited independently and develops a life of its own, spawning offspring that mutates etc. etc. Misinformation might be corrected in one location but continue to exist in a separate space. How wonderful it would be if a watermarking process could be used to keep track of content – documents, web pages, images, videos, whatever – and present you with a linked network of relationships. Even better, include a tool to then compare all content marked as looking suspiciously similar to identify duplicates versus mutants versus offspring.

Naturally, I’m not being remotely original with this thought. It has lurked in my head since reading Ted Nelson’s opinions about how hypertext should have developed versus what actually happened – Lost in hyperspace:

That project dumbed down hypertext to one-way, embedded, non-overlapping links… XML is only the latest, most publicised, and in my view most wrongful system that fits this description… I greatly regret my part in it, and that I did not fight for deeper constructs. These would facilitate an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; showing the origins of every quotation…

As organisations start standardising document formats, using XML (Mr Nelson may not like it but it’s better than separate proprietary formats for different applications), the watermark approach becomes increasingly possible to implement. Attach a unique ID to the document when it is first saved. Each time it is accessed from its location, append an addition to its ID. If it is closed without being saved, the ID expires. If it is saved, either in the same location or a new one (‘open’ should include being added as an attachment to an email or copied to the clipboard), an amendment is added to the ID. Saved in the same location = version amendment. Saved in new location = copy amendment.

Create a tracker tool that can sniff out the ID of documents within recognised content sources and present a network/hierarchy of all IDs found, showing relations (i.e. all docs starting with the same initial ID). Create a management tool that enables an organisation to organise those relationships. Duplicate documents get collapsed back down into a single source. Mutants get acknowledged as different but with a link to their original source. If the files are saved as XML, then it could even be possible to show which sections of each document are different, so you could check if a mutant really is a mutant or just a near-duplicate with a different title.

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