Applying the <indecs> Model to Interoperability of Legal Data?

I’m in the middle of teaching an introductory course on metadata and while preparing for an upcoming lecture I was reviewing the <indecs> model for e-commerce. It occurred to me that this model might have something to contribute to the interoperability of legal data.

<indecs> is a rather peculiar looking acronym that stands for Interoperability of Data in E-Commerce Systems. It’s a “metadata framework” or reference model similar in intention to the library community’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographical Records (FRBR). FRBR is a conceptual model that provides the cataloguing community with a common frame of reference that allows for a more consistent discussion of the issues that affect bibliographic control. <indecs> has a similar starting point providing a model that is applied to the role metadata has in electronic commerce.

Work on the <indecs> project originally began in 1998 and the associated Principles, Model and Data Dictionary was released in June 2000. As mentioned, the focus of <indecs> was on e-commerce and more specifically the administrative metadata used to control digital rights management (DRM). This framework has influenced the development of a number of subsequent metadata schemes including ONIX (ONline Information eXchange) the metadata scheme used in the publishing industry and ODRL (Open Digital Rights Language).

The <indecs> perspective on e-commerce is a deceptively simple one: “People make stuff. People use stuff. People do deals about stuff.” In a presentation by Godfrey Rust, one of the authors of the metadata framework, he expressed the relationships between People, Stuff, and Deals like this [1]:

indecs framework

People make Stuff and/or Stuff is used by People, and as a result People arrange Deals about this Stuff. This thinking led to the following three key entities in the model: Parties (People); Creations (Stuff); and, Agreements (Deals).

The metadata framework identified the following four “axioms” or e-commerce truths:

  1. Metadata is critical
  2. Stuff is complex
  3. Metadata is modular and interdependent
  4. Transactions need automation

The last one here recognizes the importance of interoperability for successful business transactions. In other words, commerce requires a system that provides an efficient and accurate method to transfer data and metadata between and among systems in an electronic environment.

“The information that needs to interoperate here is metadata: data of all kinds relating to creations, the parties who make and use them, and the transactions which support such use. The problems to be overcome are often as simple as the fact that a term such as “publisher” has a quite different meaning in two different environments which now need to exchange metadata; they are also as complex as the fact that a single creation may contain a hundred distinct pieces of intellectual property, the rights of which are owned or controlled by many different people for different purposes, places and times. In the persistent environment of the Web, changes in the status or control of these rights, recorded in different and unconnected systems will need to be capable of being communicated automatically in many different ways.” [original emphasis] [2]

That last passage captures all four of the <indecs> axioms nicely: the importance of metadata; the complexities that exist in a commercial environment; the need for metadata systems to be interdependent; and the capability for systems to communicate with each other effectively.

This leads to the four guiding principles recognized in the <indecs> framework:

  1. Unique Identification: Every entity should be uniquely identified within an identified namespace
  2. Functional Granularity: It should be possible to identify an entity whenever it needs to be distinguished
  3. Designated Authority: The author of an item of metadata should be securely identified
  4. Appropriate Access: Everyone requires access to the metadata on which they depend, and privacy and confidentiality for their own metadata from those who are not dependent on it [3]

However, the authors also note that although these principles are desirable, “it is rare that any of these is fully realised; but the extent to which they are realised largely determines the ultimate usefulness and resilience of any given metadata schema in terms of its effective interoperability with other domains.” [4] These principles then can serve as criteria that are useful for evaluating the general success of any metadata scheme. And they are also very reminiscent of the guiding principles for the semantic web.

Rust arrived at the following conclusions derived from the <indecs> project:

  • All metadata is just a view
  • (Almost) all terms need unique identification
  • Events are the key to interoperability

In other words, different metadata schemes can treat the same types of resources in different ways depending on the metadata lens that one choses to look through. He identifies the inherent importance of unique identification when working in an electronic environment. The third conclusion though is the “something” that I think might more broadly apply to legal metadata and that is the importance of “events.”

Events are considered the “glue” that holds the <indecs> model together. This is an approach that differs from the resource-based metadata schemes that we usually deal with and shifts the emphasis away from the “stuff-centred” perspective usually found in e-commerce metadata.

The <indecs> framework considers the “event-centred” approach as offering the following advantages:

“First, it is a way of creating the maximum number of metadata relationships with the minimum amount of duplication. For example, where many parties play several contributor roles at different times and places, using different tools (as, for example, in the making of a film), this can be most simply described as a series of events.

Secondly, it provides a single, common and endlessly repeatable structure for integrating the whole range of distinct creative, commercial and legal events which comprise the different views relevant to [intellectual property] e-commerce. The event structure is proposed as the long-term glue for e-commerce metadata interoperability.

Thirdly, the event structure provides the most efficient means to track changes that relate to persistent entities. Beings, things and concepts have things happening to them constantly (some of which need recording), while they retain a consistent identity. In rights management in particular, tracking complex changes in ownership and in licensing terms and conditions is critical.” [original emphasis] [5]

Roles are important in <indecs> too because they describe the relationships that exist between entities during an event. There are four generic roles identified: agents (normally fulfilled by people, other beings, or by organizations of beings); inputs (passive roles that qualify, support, or are subject to, acts of agents); outputs (entities resulting from an event which were not pre-existent, or which are new versions of pre-existing entities with different attributes, i.e. creations); and context (time and place).

There has been a fair amount of work recently on using the principles and conclusions of <indecs> as a framework for the control of intellectual property rights, something I will explore in the months ahead. But I can’t help feeling that there is also something here that can be more broadly applied to the dynamic nature of law and relationships between legal resources. Something to think about.

[1] Godfrey Rust. 2001. ‘The <indecs> Analysis’. Workshop presented at the W3C Workshop on Digital Rights Management for the Web, January 22, Sophia Antipolis, France <>, slide 4.
[2] Rust, Godfrey, and Mark Bide. 2000. ‘The <indecs> Metadata Framework: Principles, Model and Data Dictionary’. Indecs Framework Ltd. <>, p. 6.
[3] Ibid., p. 9-11.
[4] Ibid., p. 8.
[5] Ibid., p. 21.

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