Latest Stupid DRM Idea: Ebooks With Corrupted Texts That Vary By Customer

from the control-above-content dept

It is extraordinary how companies have failed to grasp three basic facts about DRM: that DRM only needs to be broken once, and it is broken everywhere, thanks to the Internet; that DRM is always broken at least once; and that once DRM is broken, anything still with that DRM is effectively worth less than zero -- since copies freely available online never have DRM. Despite these inconvenient truths, copyright companies continue to hope that there is some magic technology that will "protect" them from the pirates. Here's the latest forlorn attempt to do that, as reported by paidContent:

Germany's Fraunhofer Institute is working on a new ebook DRM dubbed SiDiM that would prevent piracy by changing the actual text of a story, swapping out words to make individualized copies that could be tracked by the original owner of the ebook.
This kind of fingerprinting is hardly new: it's used for music, and also for documents where people wish to track the origin of any leaks. But as paidContent points out:
in music files, these types of changes are a lot less notable than a machine rewriting a book, which is why it's unlikely that authors and literature friends would embrace SiDiM.
That's because the fingerprinting involves tampering with the integrity of the work -- imagine doing this to a book of poetry. It means that customers aren't really getting the work they paid for, but a modified, compromised version. Indeed, picking up on this theme, Nick Harkaway has written a splendid piece on Futurebook.net explaining why putting DRM above text fidelity is a really bad move for the art of the book:
I think the notion of a book which is reconfigured to provide a chain of evidence in a civil proceeding against the reader is repellant. I think that is in the most perfectly Teutonic sense an un-book. Books should not spy on you. I'm fascinated by Kobo's remarkable ability to track readers' progress through an ebook, and the commercial side of me really wants that information. But the civil liberties thinker in me hates that the facility exists and loathes the fact that people aren't entirely clear on how much they're telling the system about themselves. It really unsettles me. This is far worse: the deliberate creation of an engine of observation inside the text of the book. It stinks.
Any publishers adopting this technique will be betraying the very books they purport to defend, by turning them from cherished friends into potential traitors. A far better approach for everyone, including the publishing industry, would be to offer more and better books at reasonable prices -- with the correct, uncorrupted text.

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Filed Under: corrupted text, drm, ebooks
Companies: fraunhofer institute


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  1. icon
    Mark Murphy (profile), 21 Jun 2013 @ 5:29am

    "Integrity" not necessarily compromised

    "That's because the fingerprinting involves tampering with the integrity of the work"

    That depends on your definition of "integrity" and the type of the "work".

    For example, take this paragraph:

    "Any publishers adopting this technique will be betraying the very books they claim to defend, by turning them from cherished friends into potential traitors. A far better approach for everyone, including the publishing industry, would be to offer more and better books at sensible prices -- with the correct, uncorrupted text."

    This is nearly the same as the concluding paragraph of this post, with two word changes. The meaning of the paragraph, IMHO, is not substantially changed by those two word changes... but, then again, I am not the author of that paragraph, and so I am unqualified to make that claim.

    If the book publisher works in concert with the author -- such as, for example, a self-published author -- it is eminently possible to come up with a laundry list of such synonym pairs and locations, where swapping between those words would not materially harm the work, but would represent bits to be toggled. Only the author will know which circumstances are safe to toggle without wrecking the meaning. And, of course, this will not work with all types of "works". Non-fiction will be easier than fiction, which will be easier than poetry.

    So long as, in the eyes of the author, the integrity of the work is not compromised, using synonym toggle bits as a form of "soft DRM" is not significantly different than other forms of watermarking (e.g., steganographic insertion of identifiers into images), except that it is more reliable (e.g., not going to be wrecked if somebody tinkers with the images, such as by converting a book into another book format).

    The point of "soft DRM" is to allow authors/publishers to more gently handle copyright infringement. Soft DRM of this type does not stop buyers from moving the book between devices, or from printing the book, etc. Mostly, it's there so that if a copy is distributed sans license, the author/publisher has some idea of who did it, so they can take appropriate steps.

    And, once again, the "appropriate steps" will vary in severity, ranging from simply preventing that person from buying more books (akin to a shopkeeper refusing entry to those who have shoplifted) to full-on legal action. If you think that a lawsuit is an over-the-top response, that's an issue with the lawsuit, not with the "soft DRM" that enabled it.

    So, IMHO, a blanket statement that this "involves tampering with the integrity of the work" is unsupportable. It may involve tampering, if the changes are made without author approval and if the changes do materially change the meaning of the affected passages. IOW, changing some words does not necessarily result in "corrupted text", any more than proofreading and editing the author's original words results in "corrupted text". Corruption is possible, but not a fait accompli.

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