New DRM Changes Text of eBooks to Catch Pirates

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A new form of DRM developed in Germany alters words, punctuation and other text elements so that every consumer receives a unique version of an eBook. By examining these "text watermarks", copies that end up on the Internet can be traced back to the people who bought and allegedly pirated them. The project is a collaboration between researchers, the book industry and the Government and aims to be a consumer-friendly form of DRM.

sidimWith e-readers becoming more popular year after year, book piracy is seen as a growing problem for the publishing industry.

To counter this threat, publishers are constantly looking for new forms of DRM. With financial support from the Government and backing from the publishing industry, researchers at the Darmstadt Technical University in Germany launched SiDiM, a project to find DRM innovations.

One of the solutions being worked on at the moment aims to make individual ebooks unique through so-called “text watermarks.” The researchers have developed a technology that will make small changes to book texts so each buyer gets a unique copy. If the book is later uploaded to the Internet it can be easily traced back to the source.

“The goal of the SiDiM project is to develop new protection measures for eBooks and electronic documents. Texts in digital format are particularly threatened by unauthorized copying, for example via the Internet,” SiDiM’s Dr. Martin Steinebach explains.

“A solution to this problem is to alter documents with visible and invisible marks that make a single copy distinguishable. Users are encouraged to take responsibility their their copy and it will deter illegal file-sharing, as copies can be traced using these marks,” the researcher adds.

While the general story-line will remain intact, the DRM shuffles some words around, inserts synonyms, changes the paragraph format or the punctuation. For example, the word “unsympathetic” could be changed to “not sympathetic,” and so forth.

The researchers see this as a ‘consumer-friendly’ form of DRM as it doesn’t lock the book to an account or prevent copying between devices.



Whether readers will be equally enthusiastic remains to be seen. Since the process is completely automated there is a risk that errors will occur. For example, sentences may no longer carry the nuances intended by the author.

To see what kind of reception the text alterations might receive, publishers and authors have been sent a list of 15 “text watermark” examples along with a request to assess the changes.

The researchers don’t explain how they intend to deal with creative pirates, who might add in their own alterations, so it’s unsure whether the system is foolproof.

While the “text watermarks” are not particularly intrusive for readers, the assumption that all consumers are potential criminals may not sit well with everyone. Additionally, most book fanatics will probably want to read the book the way the author intended.


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