Blog Post

New ebook DRM will change the text of a story to prevent piracy

Well, this is one way to do it: 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.

A Fraunhofer infographic showing how SiDiM would turn one book into individual copies.
A Fraunhofer infographic showing how SiDiM would turn one book into individual copies.

Reports about the work first popped up on German blogs this week, with one blogger revealing examples that include changing wordings like “invisible” to “not visible” and “unhealthy” to “not healthy.” Other examples included sentences in which the order of words was changed, or in which hyphens were added to words.

The idea behind SiDiM is similar to the way rights holders have been trying to protect music and video for some time. Instead of trying to lock down copies through technical measures that prevent copying, so-called fingerprinting measures simply add markers to a work that make it possible to identify the original purchaser. In theory, this prevents people from sharing their works for the fear of being caught.

However, 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. The system is currently in testing, and Fraunhofer secured some state funding to run these tests and even got a subsidiary of the German book publisher’s association to join.

But here’s the twist: German blog pointed out that the book publishers actually joined because they’re interested in finding alternatives to the traditional lock-down approach of DRM, simply because they’ve learned in the past that even the strongest lock can be broken.

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

21 Responses to “New ebook DRM will change the text of a story to prevent piracy”

  1. The headline is misleading in a way that obscures the way this particular scheme would play out. SiDiM would not “prevent piracy”; it would (as the article points out) make it possible to identify the source of the file. And … then what?

    Prosecution, right? Sue those people who gave a file to a friend, maybe lent it within a book group. Collect several thousand dollars for each violation. Send a message.

    Has any other media business tried this enforcement strategy? Yes; the music business has. They also went big into spoofing files for a time. It didn’t stop piracy, nor did it win any friends among people (like me) who never pirate and try to support musicians. It did mangle the reputation of music labels, though.

    • I think the thinking behind this is that people would stop stealing once they’re aware of the possibility that they could get caught. But yeah, the real question is – what do you actually do once you find out who redistributed the work.

  2. alternatives

    hey, what about (real novel idea here) teaching people in school that stealing is wrong, that copying things that don’t belong to you is illegal and considered stealing, and that people will stop creating unique content if they don’t get paid for their work.

    that said, people are not stupid, the old model of slapping a price based on an old model of value, is in and of itself worthless. if the content is good, then the price should reflect, but in a global marketplace, where a best-seller can be realized in mere moments compared to traditional print/distribute model, content creators and companies selling/marketing the content need to get realistic with pricing. rebates offered for referrals, rebates when a certain number of copies (digital or otherwise) are sold, etc. People are always going to want some level of ‘ownership’ for something they bought and with books, they are always going to want to share/give their copy, irrespective of the format, to someone they know.

    • Asterisk

      The problem with that teaching people that “stealing is wrong” is that copying isn’t actually considered stealing by anyone who doesn’t engage in disingenuous sophistry, and rightly so, because copying *isn’t* actually stealing, and is, in fact, a completely distinct activity that *lacks* the element of harm – *depriving* someone of their property – that’s the defining quality of theft.

  3. I’ve been told that top secret documents with a limited circulation use this technique. It’s how they knew that one in the hands of a former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers was from Alger Hiss.

    But for all but the most trivial of escapist novels, this scheme makes no sense. Suppose the book in question is a biography of Winston Churchill. How can I quote from it in my own writings if my quote isn’t going to match those of others? Even worse, suppose that “invisible” to “not visible” quote comes from a Churchill speech.

    This sort of schemes makes more sense if done a bit more cleverly and with some humor. The author or editors turn in a version of the book with two sets of conditional texts. The right one displays for the DRM-approved. The other, displays for those using a pirated copy.

    In the latter, key parts of the plot disappear without a trace, something that’s likely to become very confusing later on. Minor characters get multiple names. Someone leaves in a car with John and arrives at his destination with Bill. Even worse, plot spoilers are inserted. Rather than have a murder mystery that really is a mystery, the killer is revealed rather clumsily in Chapter 3, making reading the rest of the book pointless. And to make clear what’s happening, the book could have characters make snide remarks about people who get pirated books.

    The downside is that some readers a likely to be so clueless, they will mistake that DRM-damaged copy for the real thing, decide the author is dreadful, and never buy his books.

  4. María Ricci

    People will print the file as soon as they download it, in order to have a text with the frozen contents before the tracking procedure starts to modify it.

    Instead of spending obscene amounts of money developing ridiculous contrievances that seem to be “genius ideas” only for three seconds, why not investing in creating new distribution schemes to promote affordable book reading, or why not designing new rights systems so that the authors get paid for their work on a different basis and books are widely available to people everywhere?

    Yes, payment collection is becoming more important than the intellectual integrity of a text.

    Also, this is a perverse measure, as it creates the contrary effect of the purpose a publisher should embrace: the spirit is preventing people from reading instead of gaining as much readers as possible. And if a writer chooses a publisher like this, then he deserves not being read at all.

  5. You can’t do automatic replacement like that without ruining the meaning of the text
    for example, that headline where they changed the name of Tyson Gay to Tyson Homosexual.

    I couldn’t reason a story with not-visible cloaks.

  6. I think the most interesting part of this story is the idea of “hyphens” or “markers”, more than “text changing”. By inserting a couple of hundred small “markers, or extra spaces” throughout the book, it would not change the text in the least but would in fact as a book “fingerprint”.

  7. ferret

    Hang on “not visible” is not quite he same as “invisible”.
    A lot of small changes in the same book can change the story greatly.
    ALso, suppose a student and teacher have supposedly slightly different versions of the saem DRM’d book. The teacher may mark the student down for “incorrect” quotations.

  8. NickBangO

    As an author, I just feel abused right now.

    SiDiM basically means that, for the first time in history, DRM becomes more important than the content of the book itself.

    Should authors accept that, the Pandora’s box is going to open.

    Not only should this company stop this right now, but it should also fire the guys who had this “brilliant” idea. And the German state should be absolutely blamed as it is quite clear that, for this state, culture is worthless — since any evil company can alter text in books…

  9. This is a great. We have our own way of doing just what these guys are proposing but no one seemed to care when we tossed it around in 2009. Or maybe the publishing cartel is hard to get into. Probably the industry has changed by now. Idk. Good going guys! Let me know if you want to collaborate!

  10. But what if a pirate has 2 or more versions of the secured documents? He could find all the differences and then create randomly another version and so no one could tell where it started from.

    • iucounu

      Then you’ve instantly broken the DRM scheme. If there’s one difference in each copy, you just DIFF the two files and you can see what’s been changed.

      Things could get more difficult if there’s more than one change in each copy, and if some of the changes are shared across multiple titles – that way you’d need to DIFF a larger population of files.

      The real value of this proposal is not that it represents any kind of challenge to or solution for piracy, but just that it represents a more graceful exit strategy, for publishers, from current forms of DRM.