Posted on October 4, 2013 in Archive

New DRM changes content of books to track file sharing


Though the meanings are the same, there’s a poetic difference in “invisible cloak” versus “not visible cloak”, wouldn’t you agree? The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany doesn’t think so. They are currently working on a new digital rights management (DRM) system for ebooks that actually changes the text of a story in order to track illegal file sharing.

It’s called SiDiM – secure documents by individual marking. Please note, this link is in German, so Google Translate may come in handy now.

Proposed changes to text include changing wordings and phrases (like the aforementioned “invisible” to “not visible”), changing the order of words in a sentence (like Yoda? Is it that easy to alter sentence structure in German?), or adding hyphens to words.

By creating individualized copies, these researchers are hoping that any pirated book copies can be effectively traced back to their original owners, who can then be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Or something like that.

Essentially, it looks as though they are trying to scare ebook owners into keeping their files to themselves – unless a ‘pirate’ purchases a hard copy of the book and trawl through it to discover how the ebook is individualized, how can you know how your specific copy is different to others? Buying the paper version of a book kind of defeats the purpose of pirating, really.

In the music industry, individualised markers (called fingerprinting) can be placed on music files in order to track who was the original purchaser, without affecting the quality of the file or music. Why can’t a similar result be achieved with books? Obviously there are bits of files we don’t see when actually reading an ebook, and they don’t bother us a bit.

This is a blatant display of lack of trust between publishers and their readers. It’s also rather disrespectful to the authors. If I had gone to all the trouble of writing a book, only to have a computer program alter my work so they can track who opens it, I would be annoyed.

If there are authors out there who would be as annoyed as I hypothetically am, this might hasten the move towards self-publishing. How can publishers claim that DRM and anti-piracy measures are more important than the content they hope to distribute? Changing the content in order to protect the content is utterly pointless.

Changing a few words in each document seems like a relatively simple solution when examined in black and white, so who is to say there isn’t a relatively simple solution to get around SiDiM? Nick Harkaway suggests that hosting sites could simply scan the texts and compare the differences, and change the text so it every copy appears to come from John Smith, who then gets all the blame and many fines.

Traditional watermarking is a much more effective solution to the file sharing problem. Yes, a transparent mark on the page might be more immediately visible than adding a few superfluous hyphens here or there, but it definitely protects and maintains the author’s work and integrity.  There are even invisible watermarking options these days! How can the researchers behind SiDiM claim that altering the text of a book is the best solution? Without even considering how altering phrases could change the tone of the book – changing, adding or removing punctuation throughout a text is bound to create errors, if left unchecked.

Hopefully the digital publishing community can band together and find a better alternative to this proposed system. (This particular kind of) change isn’t always a good thing.

Image courtesy of (CC-BY-SA) Flickr user gazzaPax.