International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) is one of the various standards that help make publishing and other content businesses work behind the scenes. ISNIs are 16-digit numbers that are assigned to creators—authors, researchers, musicians, photographers, and so on. Last month, the ISNI International Agency, ISNI’s governing body, held an online conference to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the standard’s existence—making ISNI a young standard but one that’s rising in importance and could be a boon to improving publishing’s rights and royalty functions.
Understanding identifiers such as ISNI is key to understanding the way content is treated commercially in the online world. We’re all familiar with ISBNs—they date back to the 1970s. They’ve been fundamental components of physical commerce in books worldwide since business started being done with computers. But with the advent of the internet in the 1990s, the industry has been introducing more and more identifiers in hopes of greasing the wheels of online commerce even further. Standard identifiers have many advantages: they are compact and easily machine readable, and they allow disparate entities throughout an industry to refer to things—books, journals, journal articles, institutions, and ultimately people—in consistent ways with precision and without ambiguity.
The internet has enabled individuals to engage in transactions involving content, so it has become worthwhile to refer to individual content creators using standard identifiers. Accordingly, we’ve seen a proliferation of identifiers for individuals since the 1990s, such as IPI (Interested Party Information) for songwriters and ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) for academic researchers, which were established in 2001 and 2009 respectively. ISNI, which arose primarily out of the library and rights management communities, was announced in 2011 and became an ISO standard the following year. All of these identifier schemes have registries—entities that assign new identifiers, ensure quality control, and maintain online databases of them.
Creators apply for ISNIs and then link their content items to them. For this they use standard content identifiers such as ISBNs for books, ISWCs for musical compositions, DOIs for journal articles, and so on. As with other identifier schemes, ISNIs have their own global registry. The ISNI International Agency, located in the U.K., supervises and works with 33 registration agencies around the world that request assignments of new ISNIs from the central registry. Pluralities of registration agencies are in Europe and are libraries. Others include commercial providers of databases containing metadata, such as musician credits, and various rights and royalty processors.
But the most widely known ISNI registration agency is YouTube. When YouTube signed on as a registration agency in late 2017, it gave ISNI a jolt of publicity and helped put it on a trajectory of increasing adoption in the music industry and more generally in the world of commercial content. The ISNI International Agency expects that YouTube could add millions of new ISNIs per year as it registers them for certain types of music and video uploaders.
Another big boost came in early 2019 when SoundExchange adopted ISNIs. SoundExchange is a U.S. music industry organization that collects royalties from digital radio services like Pandora and Sirius XM and distributes them to record labels and recording artists. In fact, music is probably the fastest-growing area of ISNI adoption, not least because though the IPI has existed for songwriters, a standard identifier for recording artists hadn’t existed previously. SoundExchange has asked the U.S. Copyright Office to collect ISNIs for recording artists who register their copyrights so that ISNIs can be included in the Copyright Office’s database.
Accordingly, while growth in the number of ISNI adoptions has been accelerating since the mid-2010s, it took a sharp upward turn recently, increasing almost 25% over the past year alone.
As of this writing there are over 14 million ISNIs assigned. That’s several times the number of IPIs in the music composition world, though it’s quite close to the number of ORCIDs assigned to scholarly researchers (12.8 million as of this writing). And it sits comfortably among the numbers of people who upload content to popular content-specific sites: for example, Wattpad claims over five million story writers, while 30 million people have uploaded their music to SoundCloud. Of course, the numbers of people who post on Facebook or post photos to Instagram and Snapchat—content creators of different sorts—are orders of magnitude larger.
ISNIs may never supplant creator identifiers that are specific to different types of content, but they are growing in appeal. The ISNI International Agency is working to expand ISNI’s impact into the book publishing supply chain and to apply it to TV and film as well as copyright management applications. Getting vendors of rights management software solutions to store and track ISNIs would be the next great milestone for this fast-growing standard; if literary agents, publishers, book distributors, and booksellers all used ISNIs, then rights and royalties processes in book publishing would run that much more efficiently and predictably.
Bill Rosenblatt is president of GiantSteps Media Technology Strategies and a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.