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Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
Protecting your copyright on the web
By BBC News Online's Iain Rodger
One of the biggest problems with the internet is that once material is published on a website it can be copied, downloaded or printed by anyone with a PC, modem and printer.
This lack of protection has slowed down the development of internet services because major companies are generally not prepared to place their most valuable work in the public domain.
Various methods of protection have been used, such as password access to a dedicated site, downloads allowed only after payment, and watermarks making published photographs unusable elsewhere.
Now a new Silicon Valley company, Vyou.com, has launched a software package offering companies variable levels of protection of their website content, and it is causing quite a stir.
Using the Vyoufirst software, a web publisher can allow the surfer to read but not print, copy or download; or to read and print but not copy or download, or any other combination.
The protection can be applied to the whole website, to individual pages, or to any elements within a page. Even the source code can be protected, securing the look and feel of a website.
The potential for e-commerce is obvious. A firm selling pictures is able to show potential customers the full image without the risk that it will be stolen.
And it can offer different fees for permission to print or download, depending on the buyer's requirements.
Once the products are bought and downloaded, a different technology - file wrapping - is needed to ensure they are not then misused.
Vyou (pronounced "view") says this protection will produce a "dramatic advance" in the range and quality of material accessible on the internet.
The company says web users will be able to see more and better content, e-commerce companies will have a much more effective shop window for displaying their wares, and content creators will be free to put their latest and best work online.
As Vyoufirst can also show alternative versions of a page depending on the level of service paid for by the viewer, the possibility arises of having, say, gold, silver and bronze access to the same website available at different costs.
Vyou was founded in April 1999 by Peter Levy, the former founder and chief executive of Intellichoice, a pioneering US-based automotive website bought by Primedia in 1997.
He had the idea for Vyou after Intellichoice had its database stolen by a rival, leading to a costly - but ultimately successful - court battle to assert its copyright.
This year, things have been moving fast. In January, Vyoufirst was voted People's Choice at the Showcase technology conference in Palm Springs, and earlier this month it secured $9m (£5.7m) in equity funding.
Already, it has an advertising alliance with AdForce and reselling deals with Clickability and GoCampus. A partnership arrangement with Siemens in Germany has just been signed.
Vice president of international operations at Vyou, Patrick Regester, says there are plans to float in March 2001.
How it works
When a web user goes to a protected page, a dialogue box pops up explaining that it is protected and asking whether the user wants to download a small plug-in.
This does not take long and does not need to be repeated. The page is loaded into memory from the server in encoded form. The plug-in on the viewer's hard-drive decodes it.
Drop-down menu functions not allowed - such as print or copy - are simply greyed out.
Mr Regester says other tricks - such as screen grabs - are also protected and that Vyou has a team of professional hackers working to try to find holes in the security.
One major problem with the system is that once authority is granted for printing, anyone with the necessary technical expertise can capture the file from the printer buffer.
They would then have the digital information to use as they wish.
Vyou's support manager in San Jose, Chris Davis, told me they were aware of this loophole and advised their clients accordingly.
"It means they have to know there is this risk before they choose to authorise printing and build it into their pricing structure," he said.
Downloading a plug-in can also raise serious questions of trust.
Many people are very wary of downloading files unless they are from a well-known company because there have been instances when such files have done rather more than advertised.
Scams dent confidence
Tony Morbin, the London head of independent media researchers Kagan World Media, says there was one case when a downloaded file disconnected the PC's internet access and reconnected it to a premium rate service without the viewer knowing.
The line remained connected, building up huge phone bills, until the PC was actually turned off. Mr Morbin says there has to be confidence in a known brand name before most people feel happy to take downloads.
Kenneth Cukier, international editor of Red Herring, says similar products have had to be built in to the market-leading web browsers before they gained a high level of market penetration.
Mr Regester says Vyou will get round this through alliances, such as the deal struck with Siemens.
But Mr Cukier is in no doubt that Vyoufirst is "very important".
"This is hitting the sweet spot of the market at a time of key growth in this area," he said.
Jan Babiak, head of information systems security at Ernst & Young, said it was exciting that the copyright protection issue was at last being addressed.
"It will meet the needs of the big content providers - such as Disney and the BBC - if it is robust," she said.
One other drawback is that the encoding does slow downloads a little.
Mr Regester says Vyou is working on that, and also on making Vyoufirst compatible across all platforms. Currently, he says, it works with 98% of browsers.
Other plans for the company - which is aiming for 50 million downloaded plug-ins by June 2001 - include expansion into web-based TV services.
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