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New MS Word Feature Checks Files for Copyright Infringement
February 8, 2011

REDMOND--A bundle of feature updates and add-ons released Monday to subscribers of Microsoft's popular word-processor service Word includes a new digital rights management, or "DRM", feature designed to facilitate the use of copyrighted material in documents written using the service. "We're very excited about the new [copyright advisor] tool," explains Microsoft VP of Circumstantial Features Edmund Raunch. "For hundreds of years there's been a lot of legal uncertainty surrounding the writing process. How would you know, for example, if what you were writing was infringing somebody else's copyright unless you knew everything that had already been written. Well, we've tackled that uncertainty and just blown it away."

Known informally as "the Mouse," the feature involves a context-appropriate pop-up avatar in the likeness of Disney's famous cartoon character. "Disney actually approached us concerning a branding alliance on the feature," explains Raunch. "They're very dedicated to the whole copyright and rights management issue and wanted to be actively involved in the development of the Advisor."

The advisor works in much the same way as conventional spell-checking and grammar-checking features, monitoring documents on-the-fly as they are created and flagging any potential problems for the user. Once a potentially infringing passage is identified, the Advisor materializes and offers a number of options, including suggested, non-infringing re-phrasings, and an option to pursue automated negotiation for a licensing micro-payment to cover the use of the copyrighted material.

The advisor identifies potential infringement by checking documents against those stored in a centralized registry database maintained by the company. The registry also functions as a clearinghouse for licensing transactions involving registered materials. "We're very happy to offer registration in the Advisor's database free of charge to content creators," notes Raunch. "We recover our costs by taking a small slice of each of the licensing transactions."

During a feature demonstration, the advisor proved adept at identifying direct copying, noting almost instantly that "Call me Ishmael" was taken from Moby Dick, a book once, but no longer, in the public domain. In a cheerful voice, Mickey suggested alternatives, including "My name is Ishmael" and "Call me Ichabod," and also offered to license the phrase for 8 cents in fewer than 50 copies of the document.

More impressive was the advisor's ability to identify potential "derivative uses," including creation of sequels and so-called "fan fiction." With fewer tell-tale details than the words "Kirk," "logic," and "pointy ears," Mickey was able to suggest that we seek license from Paramount for creation of a work derivative of its Star Trek franchise.

The feature is not without its critics, many of whom emphasize the Adivsor's power to delete unlicensed language it deems to infringe another's copyright. "This is putting too much power in the hands of Microsoft," notes Information Without Borders director Janet Pullet. "The advisor enforces their view of copyright law, and that may be much more limiting of traditional fair use rights than even current law is."

Responding to critics, Microsoft's Raunch pointed to the company's obligations under recent extensions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act: "I'm not a lawyer, but from what I understand, word processors are considered 'circumvention' devices because you can type in any document you want and just save and copy it. Because of that, we're obligated, by law, to enforce copyright to the extent technically feasible, and that's just what the advisor does.

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