Unique identifiers are a useful tool in many consumer experiences. They can assist purchasing decisions (e.g., the paperback ISBN of To Kill a Mockingbird is 9780060935467, versus 9780062420701 for hardcover). They can indicate adherence to quality requirements set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). They can aid in customer service complaints. Now, unique IDs are coming to YouTube.

I was part of the ISO working group that created the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) and have represented the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations (IFRRO) as Chairman of the ISNI board for the past two years. It has been fascinating in that time to see the range of communities applying or showing interest in the standard – record labels, collective management organizations, movie studios, libraries, and many more. The ISNI community has also become global with members and registration agencies in Asia, Europe, and North America.

It was announced in January 2018 that YouTube has decided to adopt ISNI and will assign unique ISNIs to the creators whose work appears on the platform for the purposes of accurate attribution and data reconciliation. The adoption of any standard numbering scheme by a company as large and influential as YouTube is a big deal in the world of metadata, and the move has been widely acclaimed. Others are sure to follow. Long used by national and other libraries, YouTube’s move propels ISNI into the music space and the commercial world in a big way.

Learn more: Executive Director of the ISNI International Agency Tim Devenport speaks to Beyond the Book

If you’re not familiar with ISNI, it’s an international standard (ISO 27729). It’s a unique, sixteen-digit number assigned to each “public identity” of a creator such as an artist, musician, writer, or illustrator and is intended to help fix the problem of name ambiguity in applications such as search and discovery, attribution, and payment. Approximately 9 million individuals and 700,000 organizations currently have ISNIs assigned to them. ISNI is gradually becoming a critical component in Linked Data and Semantic Web applications and is already used extensively by libraries and archives to share catalog information.

The assignment of unique numbers to identities, whether they are individual (e.g. John Lennon), collective (The Beatles), organizational (CNN) or fictional (Spiderman) can be a great boon, for example, when it comes to making accurate royalty payments. Librarians have understood for years the value of assigning unique numbers to identities in library catalogs and bibliographies, to help eliminate, or at least minimize, the confusion caused by common names or variant spellings of names. Is it Mao Tse Tung or Mao Zedong, Dostoevsky or Dostoevskii? I wonder if Michael Jackson, the American jazz guitarist, ever gets sent in error the royalties owed to The King of Pop? If so, does he ever send them back? These are the kinds of real-world problems that unique numbering of individuals is designed to solve.

In the late 1960s a cult TV show in the UK called The Prisoner baffled and entertained audiences. Its hero, known only as Number 6, proclaimed at the beginning of every episode, “I am not a number. I am a free man.” The numbering of individuals has dystopian overtones, but it’s hard to deny its value in some contexts. Standard numbers have been a feature of the media industries for decades and have played a key part in building efficient, global supply chains. Books, journals, and recordings have had unique numbers for years, and now digital creators are following that trend.


Author: Michael Healy

Michael Healy is the Executive Director, Rightsholder and International Relations, at CCC. Michael has worked in the publishing and information industry for more than 35 years and has spent most of that time in senior editorial, sales, and distribution roles. He has been closely involved in the development of standards for the international publishing industry and is especially associated with standards for metadata, product information, and persistent identifiers. Michael has led many international standards groups, was Chairman of the International ISBN Agency, a Director of the International DOI Foundation, and led the international ISO committee that developed ISBN-13. He is currently Chairman of the Board of The International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) and a board member of EDITEUR, the international publishing standards body.
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