The Fraunhaufer Institute in Germany is apparently marketing some "new" technology they're calling SiDiM which embeds digital data into texts by changing words in the text. They're telling publishers that it will fight piracy by making it easy to track files uploaded to torrents and file lockers back to their reprehensible sources.
It sounds kinda dumb, doesn't it?
The internet has over-reacted of course. Perhaps everyone is hypersensitive because of the revelations about the NSA and its data collection practices. Nick Harkaway jumped the shark a bit and called it "surveillance". The idea of changing words in books is easy to ridicule and deserves to die, but let's please take a deep breath.
There are lots of ways to put information in an ebook file, and license information is no different. For example, I've been advocating that Creative Commons licensed books should embed a digitally signed license so that the license can be relied upon. When you buy an ebook, an embedded license could protect you from accusations of infringement. Digital signatures can also tell you that a books content hasn't been tampered with.
When you buy a Harry Potter ebook direct from Pottermore, your identifying information gets digitally stamped into the ebook. According to the The Digital Reader, Pottermore uses watermarking technology from Booxtream, and I've been evaluating this technology myself for an Unglue.it project. So far, I'm impressed.
The rationale behind Pottermore's watermarking is that it prevents people from sharing the book beyond what their license allows. If the book gets on a public filesharing site, it can be traced back to the purchaser, and consequences could ensue.
Booxtream claims to be using 9 different watermarking techniques to make the embedded data hard to remove. For example, Booxtream adds digital codes to the names of the content files inside the EPUB, and adds data into image files. Although it's straightforward to strip some of the embedded info, Booxtream needs only to make it uncertain that stripping has been complete to retain some deterrence value.
For the user, the bottom line is that nothing the purchaser does or would want to do is impeded by the Booxtream watermarking. Nothing visible to the user is altered except for an ex libris page that tells the user that the copy has been personally licensed to him or her- it's customizable by the vendor.
A close analogy to ebook watermarking is the bullet serialization that's been proposed as an alternative to gun control. If every bullet was traceable to a purchaser, investigation of weapons related crime would be reduced to finding the bullet and looking it up in a database. Law abiding gun owners shouldn't notice the difference. Or maybe it would be de facto ban on ammunition. YMMV.
The argument against digital watermarking is that there will always be ways to remove the embedded data, no matter how clever you are at hiding it. Someone will make a one-click watermark stripper, and the value in watermerking will be diluted. But almost two years after Pottermore launched their digitally watermarked ebooks, it's quite hard to find watermark stripping tools. Why would anyone bother? There's nothing that the vast majority of ebook purchasers want to do that's impeded by the watermarking. Contrast that with the ease of finding tools to strip PDF watermarks, which are annoying.
You might wonder why SiDiM would be selling their technology with such a scary-dumb sounding marketing pitch. It's because publishers are the customers. I've been talking to a lot of publishers, and they're very clear that they want DRM. Or at least they THINK they want DRM. What they really want is magic. The want their ebooks to come with a magic bullet that stops piracy and over-sharing dead in its tracks. They don't understand the technology behind DRM, but many of them swallow the story that comes with it- that nobody would pay for digital files if they can get them for free from piracy sites.
The truth is that if there's magic in the kind of DRM that comes with Adobe, Apple and Kindle, it's of the variety that Voldemort would use. If there's magic in the watermarking techniques used by Pottermore, it's of the Dumbledore variety. If there's magic in SiDiM, it's like Neville Longbottom's Switching Spell that put ears on a cactus.
I'm here to tell you that magic is real. There's real magic in the stories that authors tell. There's real magic in communities and in relationships between people, between authors and readers. There's real magic in libraries. It's that real magic that will stop piracy and help authors earn a good living in the digital future.
Dumbledore's fictional magic can help make the real magic manifest, and that's what we should work towards