June 19, 2013

New DRM will change the words of your ebook


A new version of Digital Rights Management will change the words of your ebook, so that the version is unique and any matching pirate copy can be traced back to you.

Not a little disturbing, this form of DRM, more commonly known as watermarking, is notoriously used on ebooks bought from J.K. Rowling‘s Pottermore. All Harry Potter ebooks sold on the unique platform contain a watermark, and do have an advantage over other versions of the ebook in that they can be moved between various devices. Nevertheless, people immediately stripped the books of the watermarks and pirated them.

The new DRM scheme, created by the Fraunhofer Institut, is intended to scare you into not pirating your books. As Roberto Baldwin writes at Wired,

“German researchers have created a new DRM feature that changes the text and punctuation of an e-book ever so slightly. Called SiDiM, which Google translates to “secure documents by individual marking,” the changes are unique to each e-book sold. These alterations serve as a digital watermark that can be used to track books that have had any other DRM layers stripped out of them before being shared online. The researchers are hoping the new DRM feature will curb digital piracy by simply making consumers paranoid that they’ll be caught if they share an e-book illicitly.”

I realize that publishers are trying to find new ways to fend off the risk of piracy, but an outside technology firm has no business fiddling with the contents of a book. Although Baldwin writes that the changes are slight, “like from “very disturbing” to “not disturbing””, this is still an inappropriate extension of power.

Tech companies have shown themselves to be lacklustre judges of artistic merit in the past, and if a random worker or even an algorithm moves a comma, who’s to say it won’t affect the passage’s meaning. Can you imagine the havoc this might cause in a book of poetry?

A publisher using SiDiM’s software also risks alienating their readers. Despite the best efforts of ereader developers, readers still expect that when they buy a book, it belongs to them, and they can do what they like with it. This is one of the social traditions of reading which hasn’t yet faded, and hopefully will never.

In response to the new DRM, author Nick Harkaway told The Guardian,

“The criminalisation of the reader is probably not the best model for the publishing industry generally, and it creates an adversarial relationship which increases the likelihood of copyright infringements; what one program can do, another can inevitably undo, and this particular version of the system raises the possibility of a ‘scrambler’ filesharing program which randomly alters additional words so that any subsequent court case must acknowledge the possibility, however faint, that the text did not, in fact, come from a given person but merely looks that way because of the scrambler – producing ever more garbled versions of the text.”

Not to mention, further outsourcing your personal library, or the control of an ebook’s content, is immensely problematic. By way of example, as Cory Doctorow wrote on Boing Boing,

“A woman who placed a big computer order at Amazon had her account frozen while they tried to verify her credit-card, a process that went horribly awry (they demanded that she fax them her bank-statement, which she did, eight times, but they never got it, and who knows where those eight copies ended up). As a result, she is no longer able to access her Amazon account, including her Kindle ebooks. She can still presumably read them on her existing devices (assuming they don’t remotely wipe them), but can’t activate any new devices and until and unless she resolves this bizarre situation, her books will disappear forever when her Kindle breaks or its battery wears out. That’s right: if you order too many computers from Amazon, they might take away your books.”

This is what happens when we let technology companies disregard the social traditions of reading, or simply change the meaning of “owning” a book. You risk losing control of your books when an office worker can’t use a fax machine, or when an algorithm moves the comma in your Emily Dickinson.



Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.