Monday, December 28, 2009

The Case Against Using Spoofed e-Books to Battle Piracy

I've known since I was four years old the difference between the Swedish Santa Claus and the American Santa Claus. The Swedish Santa Claus (the one who comes to our house) uses goats instead of reindeer and enters by the front door instead of the chimney. And instead of milk and cookies, the Swedish Santa Claus (a.k.a. Jul Tomten) always insists on a glass of glögg.

The glögg in our house was particularly good this year (used Cooks Illustrated recipe), so Jul Tomten stayed a bit longer than usual. I had a chance to ask him some questions.

"You're looking pretty relaxed this year, what's up?" I asked.

"It's this internet, you know. What with all the downloaded games, and music and e-books, my sleigh route takes only half the time it used to!"

"Really, that's amazing! I've read about the popularity of Kindle e-books, but I never imagined it might affect you! Are you worried that the sleigh and goat distribution channel will survive?"

"Oh not at all, Eric, remember, Christmas isn't about the goats, it's about the spirit! And even if all the presents could be distributed digitally, someone's got to go and drink the glögg, don't you think?"

"One thing I've been wondering, that list of yours, you know, the naughty and nice list... It must be very different now- do you look at people's Facebook profiles?"

"Ho ho ho ho. At the North Pole, your privacy is important to us, as the saying goes. Well, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. 'Naughty and Nice' is a bit of a misnomer. We never put coal in anyone's stocking. The way we look at it, there's goodness in each and every person."

"I guess I never thought of it that way."

"Just imagine how a child would feel if they woke up Christmas morning to find a lump of coal in their stocking! Even if the child was very naughty, do you a holiday disappointment would suddenly turn the child nice?"

"Besides, if we really wanted to put something useless in a stocking these days, it would be a VCR tape or an encyclopedia volume, not coal."

I've had a chance to reflect a bit on my chat with Santa, particularly about putting coal in naughty people's stockings. I've recently been studying how piracy might effect the emerging e-book market, and I've made suggestions about how to reinforce the practice of paying for e-books. But one respected book industry consultant and visionary, Mike Shatzkin, has made a suggestion that the book industry should take the coal-in-the-stocking approach to pirated e-books.

In an article entitled Fighting piracy: our 3-point program, Shatzkin proposes as point #1:
Flood the sources of pirate ebooks with “frustrating” files. Publishers can use all sorts of sophisticated tricks to find pirated ebooks, like searching for particular strings of words in the text. (You’d be shocked at how few words it takes to uniquely identify a file!) But people looking for a file to read will probably search by title and author. So publishers can find the sources of pirated files most likely to be used by searching the same way, the simple way.

But, then, when publishers find those illicit files, instead of take-down notices, which is the antidote du jour, we’d suggest uploading 10 or 20 or 50 files for every one you find, except each of them should be deficient in a way that will be obvious if you try to read them but not if you just take a quick look. Repeat Chapter One four times before you go directly to Chapter Six. Give us a chapter or two with the words in alphabetical order. Just keep the file size the same as the “real” ebook would be.
Points 2 and 3 of Shatzkin's "program" are reasonably good ideas. But this point 1 is a real clunker.

I'll admit, when I first read Shatzkin's proposal for publishers to put "sludge" on file sharing sites, I thought it an idea worth considering. After having studied the issue, however, I think that acting on the idea would be a foolish and shameful.

First of all, the idea is not original. The tactic of spoofing media files was deployed by the music industry in its battle against the file sharing networks that became popular after the demise of Napster. This tactic was promoted by MediaDefender, a company that also used questionable tactics such as denial of service attacks to shut down suspected pirate sites. Although the tactic was at first a somewhat effective nuisance for file sharers, the file sharing networks developed sophisticated defenses against this sort of attack. They adopted peer-review and reputation-rating systems so that deficient files and disreputable sharers could easily be discriminated. They instituted social peering networks so that untrusted file sharers could be excluded from the network of sharers. The culture of "may the downloader beware" has carried over for e-books. On one site I noted quite a bit of discussion of the true "last word" of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows along with chatter about file quality and the like. After seeing all this, Shatztkin's suggested point 1 seems quaint, to put it kindly.

The e-book-coal-in-the-stocking idea could also be dangerous if acted on. The tactic of disguising unwanted matter as attractive content has been widely adopted by attackers going back millennia to the builders of the Trojan Horse. The sludge could be as innocuous as a Amazon "buy-me" link with an embedded affiliate code, or it could be as malicious as a virus that lets a botnet take control of your computer if you open the file. When this really happened happened for video files, it was widely asserted, without any substantiation that the viruses were planted by the film industry operatives themselves. Thus, what began as a modest attempt to harass Napster file sharers ended up resulting in a smeared reputation for the film industry.

Obviously, Shatzkin is not advocating spoofing e-book files with harmful content on file sharing sites. But publishers who are tempted to follow his point #1 should consider the possibility that emitting large amounts of e-book sludge could provide ideal cover for scammers, spammers, phishers, and other cybercriminals. Then they should talk to their lawyers about "attractive nuisances" and "joint and several liability".

Go ahead and accuse me of believing in Santa Claus. I firmly believe that no matter what business you're in, not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.

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  1. Also: what Shatzkin proposes is Just Plain Unethical. That still counts for something, right?

  2. Being nice to people counts for something, I think. Random datum: of the NYT Hardcover Fiction top ten, a quick measure of piracy activity shows a 63% activity for male authors vs 0% for female authors.