NPR's API Rights Management : Inside Rights management is a critical aspect of distribution. As a result, we built a tiered permission scheme and a rights management filtering layer into our API. Find out what is involved in rights management and how NPR addressed this problem.
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NPR's API Rights Management

One of the things that I am most commonly asked about regarding the NPR API is rights management. Because we are distributing content to unknown destinations, it is critical to make sure the API itself can control what gets offered and to whom. To handle these kinds of issues, we built a robust permissions and rights management system into the API. But that is not enough. Rights management starts with contracts and ensuring that the content is tagged appropriately. Without these steps, the rights management system cannot accurately withhold the content that is not allowed to be distributed. So, here is a breakdown of the steps we went through and the systems we built to handle rights in our API.

Before launching the API, we spent a lot of time with our legal team reviewing existing contracts and our rights tagging system. Based on this review, we determined that a few changes needed to be made to the rights tagging system, but there were quite a few restrictions on what could be offered through the API. One interesting example is Fresh Air. Fresh Air is a program produced by WHYY and distributed on the radio by NPR. NPR is also responsible for displaying the content on and is allowed to distributed Fresh Air content through limited outlets, like RSS, based on the terms of the contract. At the time of launch, however, NPR was not permitted to offer Fresh Air content through the API using the richer output formats. By the December 2008 upgrade to the API, however, the contract was renegotiated to include distribution through the API.

This highlights two points. First, at launch, we needed to incorporate a rights management system in the API that could identify specific types of content and then restrict that content from being distributed for certain types of users. The second key point is that NPR has been shifting our contract strategy to enable more content that we pick up to be distributable anywhere NPR content appears, including through the API.

Rights Tagging System
Our system for tagging assets not produced by NPR is critical for the success of rights management. That said, a sizable portion of this system involves manual effort. After all, it is the editorial process that chooses stories from external sources (e.g. AP, Reuters, etc.), images, videos and other assets. Upon selection of these assets, editorial staff then enter them into our content management system that contains appropriate fields for tagging the owner of the content.

Of course, we do have scripts that pull in some materials, like the AP Business feeds on our site. Those stories and assets that get pulled in through automated systems also get tagged by the scripts.

Finally, we also have scripts to remove content from our system based on contractual obligations. For example, if we have the rights to present an image for only 30 days, these scripts will purge the system of that image and its metadata at the appropriate time.

Rights Management System
After we determine what we are allowed to do based on the contracts, and after appropriately tagging the content itself, we were able to create a pretty flexible and powerful system for managing the distribution of the content through the API. This system has four aspects to it, including query-level filtering, story-level filtering, asset-level filtering and user permissions.

Query-level filtering enables the system to remove any story or list (ie. topic, program, series, etc.) from the system due to the permissions. It does this in two ways. First, the system will analyze the API query for any IDs that the user does not have permissions to access. If, for example, the user does not have the rights to view content from This I Believe and the user has included id=4538138 in their API query, the story-level filtering will remove the ID from the query and will proceed to execute the query without it.

Once a valid query passes through the system and figures out what stories to return, the story-level filter gets applied. This filter determines which individual stories need to be removed before returning the feed back to the user. This is done by applying the list of IDs in the filter, for the user's access level, as exclusions in the query to the API. The list of IDs in the filter include list IDs (eg. topics, programs, series, etc.), so the same rule applies to any stories that belong to any of these lists. For example, we have already established that my API key does not give me permissions to see stories that belong to This I Believe. If I request the top 10 stories that belong to the Opinion topic, and if the third story is a This I Believe story, then the system will eliminate the the third story and will add the eleventh to the results to accommodate my request for 10 stories.

Asset-level filtering is less stringent that story-level filtering in that it does not remove the story completely (as in the example above). Rather, it will display the story, but will only return those assets that the user has the rights to see. For example, if I request the top 10 stories from the People & Places topic, that result set may include a story from Fresh Air and This I Believe. In this case, let's say story number three is still a This I Believe story and story number seven is a Fresh Air story. We have already established that my API key does not allow me to see This I Believe, so the story-level filter will remove the third story and will include the eleventh in my results. Meanwhile, my API key allows me to see Fresh Air stories, just not all of them (any such restriction is no longer the case, but when we first launched the API, Fresh Air was only available through RSS). As a result, the seventh story will get through the story-level filter, but the asset-level filter will remove all assets other than the RSS information. We have other asset-level filters for audio, images, video, full text, etc.

The final element of this system, which has been mentioned throughout, is permissions. Our permission levels include Public, Partner, Station, and Master, with increasing level of access in that order. For each level, there is a distinct list of IDs associated with each filter type (although the query and story filter lists are always the same). As a result, the same story in our system can theoretically be removed for the Public user, only have RSS content for Partner users, have everything but images for Stations, and be fully available to the users. Meanwhile, a different story can theoretically have a completely different permission scheme enabling users no access to it while public users can see it all.

To see how this filtering layer sits on top of our system, here is an architectural diagram:

Click here to enlarge

Ongoing Challenges
Although this system handles our cases for the most part, rights filtering is and will always be a challenge. There are certainly cases that could sneak through the system. These cases could be a result of the editorial process, the tagging tools or the code in the API. We also encounter new scenarios that sometimes require us to quickly modify the API to handle them. Despite these challenges, we have been pretty happy with this system so far.