One of the problems with the word metadata (apart from the fact that no-one can decide whether it should be singular or plural – as a former classicist I am quite happy to use it in the Anglicized singular form!) is that the word covers such a wide range of data required for a huge variety of uses.

At a recent presentation I gave as part of a “knowledge share” session at the digital design agency Tobias and Tobias, I was rightly challenged by Patrick from Golant Media Ventures, when I said that you should not embed metadata in your content, but manage it separately. He pointed out that for copyright and rights management purposes embedded metadata is extremely useful and in fact many content creators are actively campaigning to make sure that software and service providers do not strip metadata out of content when it is transferred or transcoded.

Embedding information versus embedding IDs

He is quite right, but I was right too – just in a different sense. It is a complex and important point, so I thought it was worth expanding on. I was talking about not embedding metadata structures in assets when you can manage structures of primarily semantic metadata separately. You can do this by embedding only IDs in the assets, and then using those as lookups to access the structure as and when you need to, picking up the structure “on the fly”. The principle remains the same whether you are talking about “private” localised IDs or “public” IDs, such as Linked Open Data dereferenceable URIs (i.e. website addresses you can look up). Such an approach allows you to manage the structures and meanings contextualising those IDs separately from managing the assets themselves.

The reason is mainly technical. If you wish to add to or edit the structure of your taxonomy (or ontology) or change the information your URI points to, it is far easier to do this in one place than it is to find all the assets containing that metadata and re-index them all individually every time you make a change. So, if you store taxonomy pathways as hard-coded text strings in a piece of content, but then you decide to alter the hierarchy, you have to go back to each and every occurrence of that text string applied to content and update it, in each and every asset record that contains it. Sometimes this might be fine – if you know that you are hardly ever going to change the structure or if you have very few assets, or if you have a very powerful and sophisticated re-indexing service. Generally, however, given that language is constantly evolving and asset collections are constantly growing and changing, the “hard-coding” approach is going to require an awful lot of processing and so will be very resource hungry.

If, on the other hand, all you embed in your asset record is an ID, you can use an external system to provide the context for that ID – the pathways of the taxonomy, the relationships of an ontology, the semantic sense of a URI. You can then alter your taxonomy’s hierarchies (e.g. adding and moving concept nodes) or develop your ontology (e.g. adding new classes and relationships) in one centralised system without having to go back to every individual indexed asset in turn. This also means that you can de-couple your taxonomy or ontology management system from your digital asset management or content management system. This is important if you want more sophisticated metadata management than standard DAM, search, or CMS software provides, or if you want to future proof your semantic structures.

Modular systems are more future proof

By keeping asset management and metadata management separate you can upgrade either part without having to upgrade the other. As semantic technologies – such as ontology editing systems – are going through a rapid phase of development, and in general evolving faster than search, DAM, and other consuming systems, maintaining your semantic structures in as transferable and system agnostic form as possible shows foresight. Conversely, you may want to invest only a little in a DAM system, with the hope that business will grow and you will be able to upgrade as your content collections increase. If you have a separate metadata management system you should be able to keep that, while changing your DAM system.

Rights management is different

However, all this primarily concerns internal content and metadata management. Where embedding metadata in the asset itself makes most sense is when that metadata is metadata that you want to remain fixed to that asset and be published with it – for example, details of where a photo was taken, who owns the copyright and how to get in touch with them to licence re-use of that photo. This is because making that information hard to strip out means that when your asset wanders out into the public world of the Internet and frequent uncontrollable copying, you want users to be able to find out easily the origins of the image and its ownership.

A huge problem for collection of royalties and licensing payments is that people who would be willing to pay simply don’t know who to pay. Deliberate piracy will always be a cost – just as shops will always have to allow for a certain amount of “shrinkage” due to shoplifting, but physical shops tend to be pretty good at making sure customers who are willing to pay can find plenty of checkout tills, self-service checkouts, or sales assistants. Keeping rights information embedded in assets is the equivalent of the checkout, not the security camera.

How important is being up to date?

Of course, the problem of updating remains – so if copyrights are transferred, all those assets that have gone out with old embedded metadata contain out of date information. So, rights managers are increasingly moving towards a system of embedding dereferenceable IDs as well. One example is the EIDR system that uses this method (as well as other techniques) to manage rights. By embedding an ID that links to a centralised rights registry, information can be updated once within that central registry, and then whenever someone looks up that ID, they get the most up to date details.

So, we are both right in a way. Embedding IDs and managing metadata separately to managing assets has many advantages. Embedding the metadata itself can also be useful, especially if it is rights information of assets that will be released onto the public Internet and is information that you may not need to update, but that you do not want to be lost when the asset is copied.