Earlier, I reviewed Duly Noted, a service that helps copyright holders protect their rights by providing an unbiased 3rd party verification of submitted works. The idea is to provide proof of ownership of a work by submitting and storing it in a safe place that is easily accessible in the event of a dispute.

While I loved the idea, I lamented the high price of the service, especially for larger collections of work, and the lack of accessibility. Without paying an additional fee, the only proof of ownership DN provides is in the form of a printable certificate that some would say could be easily forged.

However, Chris Matthieu, as if hearing my cries of frustration, came up with a solution to these challenges and is providing a free, simple to use and publicly accessible service that can be used to instantly protect any kind of copyrightable material. The service, hosted on his site, is so powerful that, even though it is only in its infancy (even once called a “concept site“), is practically a must-use.


ESBN stands for Electronic Standard Book Number and is a variation of the better-known abbreviation ISBN or International Standard Book Number. However, the two have more in common than just three quarters of their names.

ISBNs are ten-digit numbers designed to uniquely identify “books and book-like objects”. Nearly every book in print carries an ISBN, which is usually printed on the cover in both numerical and barcode format.

From an ISBN, you can find out when a book was published, who the author of the book is, who the publisher is and other information that’s unique to the book. This helps bookstores, libraries and distributors organize, track and sell large volumes of books and prevents confusion when a book is reprinted by a different publisher or another book with the same name appears. It also helps with copyright disputes as, generally, the book with earliest ISBN was printed first.

On the other hand, if an ISBN is like a social security number for a book, an ESBN is a social security number for a work published online. It stores similar information to an ISBN (publisher, creator, date published, etc.) but only for works in electronic format. ESBNs, like ISBNs, come in both numerical format, save that ESBNs use 19 digits) and barcorde format and can be printed on paper materials.

However, ESBNs are not just for printed materials or even for just textual works. According to Matthieu, nearly anything that is copyrightable can be tagged with an ESBN including audio, video and images. Also, while obtaining an ISBN is time consuming (up to 15 days) and costly, obtaining an ESBN is both immediate and completely free. Also, unlike ISBNs, the public at large has access to the database and can pull up the information stored in it with just the number.

In short, the ESBN makes it possible for even individuals publishing blogs to take advantage of the kind of standardization that was previously only available to the print and music industries.

It’s a powerful and simple system that, though just getting off the ground, has some great potential uses.

The Big Idea

More than just providing numbers for copyright holders to tag their works with, ESBNs provide several interesting advantages.

First, ESBNs help protect copyright. Since submissions to the ESBN database are timestamped, each entry displays what was submitted, when it was submitted and who submitted it. Thus, it’s safe to assume that any other versions of the work that come later, even under a different name, are just copies of the previous one. Though there’s nothing to prevent someone from filing for an ESBN on a work that they don’t own, if used by copyright holders for legitimate reasons, it can provide powerful proof of ownership that can quickly settle disputes.

Also, ESBNs make it easy to find out who the author of a work is. Since ESBN entries can have both email and site information on a piece, if you find an article without attribution attached, but that contains and ESBN, it’s easy to look up the information. This can be especially useful in the battle against splogs, which will likely blindly copy the ESBN numbers, even as they hack off valuable attribution information.

It’s also possible that ESBNs could be useful when doing searches for plagiarized copies of one’s work. After all, since ESBNs are unique to individual works, any site containing the same number is almost certainly reusing the same material.

Finally, ESBNs make it possible to license out and sell copyrighted works. Since it only takes a couple of quick changes to the work’s ESBN entry to change ownership or to create a licensee, it’s possible to sell rights to a work and let the public know of such sales immediately. In fact, it may be possible to automate the entire process.

In short, the concept of an ESBN is already very powerful. However, as its users have already begun to develop new uses for the system, its power continues to grow. Though already a powerful means of verifying and proving ownership, ESBNs are already starting to grow into something greater than even Matthieu had originally imagined.

Best of all, it’s so simple to use, you don’t even have to be experienced with copyright or computers to get one.

Obtaining an ESBN

Registering an ESBN in a simple process that takes only a few seconds. First, you have to sign up for an account on the ESBN site, a matter of answering only seven questions. Then, you just log in to the site, click on “Generate ISBN” and then fill out the eight question form (of which only seven are ever required) and submit the information. You will then get your ESBN immediately and be able to either apply it to your work, print out a barcode for it or move on to another registration.

The whole process takes only a few seconds to complete.

However, as easy as that is, others have been working to make the process even easier. Already an extension is available for the Firefox Web Browser to generate ESBNs without the requirement of visiting the ESBN site and other plugins are in the works for Writely, Zohowriter and Typepad. Other blogging applications, such as Wordpress, will hopefully be following the near future.

Because, as simple as creating an ESBN is, it can be a bit of a pain to have to hand create an ESBN for each blog entry and then go back and edit the entry to display the number. This is all something that can easily be handled by means of a plugin, but it does make ESBNs somewhat prohibitive when dealing with short, rapid fire works such as those seen in the blogging world.

Some Minor Problems

As with any static registration system, dynamic content, such as blogs, are difficult to register. Though Matthieu says that dynamic sites can be zipped up and submitted every so often, that eliminates much of the benefit of having an ESBN, especially the timestamp. Thus, he and other ESBN supporters, are pushing to have every entry assigned a unique number. While this is a simple and effective solution, it’s an added hassle for creators of dynamic content, especially those who post multiple times a day.

However, this is a problem that will likely go away as the plugins catch up with the ESBN community and can largely be attributed to the fact that ESBNs are still a relatively new concept, less than a full month old.

Of course, that newness comes with it a few other issues. First and foremost that, while ISBNs are recognized worldwide, ESBNs are still gaining familiarity. Most people, right now are not going to know what one is or what to do with it. Where people recognize and understand ISBNs on books, they won’t likely grasp ESBNs on blogs.

Also, since ESBNs are so easy to obtain and promote, the system is potentially vulnerable to abuse, not only by spammers trying to push large amounts of data through the system, but by plagiarists and thieves wanting to solidify their claim to another’s work. This could, feasibly, greatly hinder the credibility of ESBNs at large and damage its usefulness for copyright holders.

In addition to that, the ESBN site itself is a bare-bones set up at the moment. It certainly isn’t glitzy or glamorous, not that it has to be. However, if one is expecting an official-looking site with a professional layout, they will be disappointed.

Also, there are several minor bugs with the site’s various tools, including the ESBN lookup feature. Though most of these problems can be easily corrected, they can provide minor irritations and obstacles to those using ESBNs regularly.

Still, even with these minor drawbacks, ESBNs are too powerful to ignore and are very likely to become a de facto standard for copyright holders on the Web.


In the end, when dealing with plagiarism, there are very few products I would consider using myself, this is one of them.

It’s powerful, simple and free. It fills a void for which no solution exists currently and solves many of the problems I’ve talked about before. It can be a powerful tool for battling splogging, plagiarism in general and nearly any kind of content theft.

So while it’s not the silver bullet to the problem, which no one solution ever will be, it certainly is a huge step and something that anyone concerned with their copyright online should jump on immediately.

It’s just that good.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, ISBN, ESBN, Copyright, Copyright Law[/tags]

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free