E-book Watermarking

From Copyright and Technology:

There’s been lots and lots of talk about DRM for e-books over the years. Lots of controversy, debates, diatribes, conference panels, etc. Watermarking? Not so much. That’s despite the fact that e-book watermarking has been in use for much longer than most people realize, and that it has recently become very popular in certain geographies, such as much of Europe. The dramatic imbalance of information about DRM and watermarking — especially in the U.S. — is not doing the publishing industry any favors in properly evaluating content protection options.

. . . .

Watermarking is a technique for embedding information in e-book files — typically information about the purchaser of the e-book and/or the place where it was purchased. Technical publishers such as O’Reilly and Springer have been inserting purchasers’ email addresses on every page of their PDF e-books for many years. More recently, e-book distributors such as Pottermore (the distributor of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter e-books) have been embedding user or transaction IDs that are known to the distributor but not meaningful to the public.

Back in 2007, Bill McCoy — then General Manager of the e-book business at Adobe, now head of publishing at W3C — advocated a watermarking-style solution to replace DRM, which he called “social DRM.” He was referring to the idea that if your name or email address is embedded in a document, you’re less likely to “overshare” it. The term “social DRM” stuck; it also led some industry writers to refer to watermarking as a type of DRM and even to use the incorrect term “watermark DRM.”

Watermarking is not DRM. This is especially the case if you accept the definition of DRM that the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Software Foundation, and others use, “Digital Restrictions Management.” Watermarked e-books have no restrictions on their use in e-readers, and retailers can’t use them to construct the kinds of walled gardens that some of them have with DRM. Any e-reader that can read the e-book’s format (PDF, EPUB, KF8, etc.) can read a watermarked e-book.

Watermarking also does not apply to the same set of distribution models as DRM does. Watermarking generally applies to retail sales, as well as certain special situations such as pre-release distribution of review copies; it isn’t used (by itself) with models such as subscriptions and library e-book lending.

Nevertheless, a growing number of e-book distributors are now using watermarking instead of DRM. As the white paper explains, this is especially true in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and many Central and Eastern European countries. Watermarking techniques have evolved so that they are not as easy to remove from e-book files as they used to be; today’s watermarking providers use multiple redundant techniques, so that someone who tries to strip a file of watermarks can’t be sure that all of the watermarks are gone.

The lack of popularity of watermarking in the North American e-book market stems from a combination of factors. Major e-book retailers aren’t motivated to give up their DRMs because doing so would diminish their walled gardens, and publishers aren’t insisting on it in their negotiations with those retailers. But just as importantly, there’s a general lack of awareness of watermarking compared to that of DRM, particularly among authors and agents who can specify it in contracts with publishers. While more research is needed to discover the relative benefits of DRM and watermarking in curbing infringement, this is a logjam that ought to be broken.

Link to the rest at Copyright and Technology

The OP contains a link to the source of a white paper about watermarking ebooks.

9 thoughts on “E-book Watermarking”

  1. Seems like they drag out this sad joke every couple of years, but like DRM it can’t really work like they claim it will.

    In order for a ‘watermark’ to do you any good each one must be different, you have to keep records of each watermark, and you have to know who you sold each watermarked item to.

    So, if you’re selling ebooks on Amazon, Amazon has to have/hold hundreds/thousands of copies and tell you not only who bought each one but which copy they got?

    Not happening.

    Then there’s the minor fact that almost any change will destroy a digital watermark. Simply re-scaling an image will kill most ‘invisible’ watermarks and photoshopping cleans up/changes the ones you can see.

    As for ebooks, changing the format will kill most watermarks. For those that ‘errors’ in the ebook are the watermark comparing 3-5 of the same ebook will let you clear the errors and actually give a better copy than the readers that paid for it got.

    The ‘only’ way watermarking would be any plus to a writer is if one of your Alpha/Beta readers or editors were sharing/stealing your work. Or those pre-release give-a-way copies that you are handing out, but selling on Amazon and the like won’t help you at all.

  2. It is particularly telling how they mangle the true meaning of DRM from the neutral “Digital Rights Management” to “Digital Restrictions Management”, which, BTW, is not meant to be complementary at all. (The EFF and others who use that definition also refer to DRM of all kinds as an infestation because they oppose all forms of rights management.)

    The agenda, of course, is to sell watermarking software systems.

    Fact is, watermarking *is* DRM.
    It may not encrypt the whole downloaded files but it does saddle the downloaded file with encrypted tracking tags. And it does impose an added cost to the retailer, who must process the file at download time to embed the watermark.

    It does allow the consumer to back up the files to their own archives but… relatively few people actually do that.

    As anonymous points out, watermarking is even less effective than encryption. Encryption at least has the “virtue” of limiting “casual piracy” among friends and trusted neighbors. Watermarking doesn’t.

    It’s just a less effective elephant repellent.

    • I also use ‘Restriction’ in DRM because in far too many cases it restricts what the honest buyer can do with it without really slowing down any ‘pirates’ at all. Never mind when your DRM object becomes worthless because the company went out of business and you can no longer reactivate it.

      All watermarking can tell you is if a copy came from one of your Amazon sales or Bookbub – if you gave them each a different copy.

      The OP just looks like they’re trying to drum up some business, ignoring the minor facts that places like Amazon won’t work with their watermarking games …

      • The reason Rights is the proper term is because DRM is about managing the rights of both sides, the consumer and the creator, not simply restricting the use of the product. It is one thing when consumer advocates use “restrictions” but something entirely different when creators adopt the term.

        Anybody who was around in the PDA era knows what truly restrictive DRM was like. There was, for example, a vendor that sold encrypted files. And what the consumer got was just that. A file. Lose it, and they’d have to buy it again. No repeated downloads.
        Others sold files that only opened in one device or were only licensed for one device. Switch readers? Buy again.
        And, of course, there was the original Sony DRM where ebooks became unreadable after three months, regardless of whether they’d been read or not.

        In contrast, modern DRM allows infinite redownloads, use on multiple devices, and is generally unobtrusive for the vast majority of users. More, it is *necessary* for library and subscription service use, two significant applications where watermarking is useless. It can also be argued that it serves a purpose in the distribution of free promos, if only to remind consumers not to redistribute temporarily free ebooks.

        It is also useless at actually stopping real piracy but it does limit the casual piracy that was so widespread during the NAPSTER music “file sharing” days. It might inconvenience a few hobbyist/techie types but the mainstream consumer doesn’t care about DRM either way.

        And if it gives creators a warm fuzzy feeling to think they’re protecting anything…

        Savvy creators go DRM-free.

        But the reality is that by now it is only an issue for those trying to sell ” anti-piracy solutions”. Even consumer advocates are moving on to more meaningful battles.

        There’s real problems to worry about, out there.

        • The reason Rights is the proper term is because DRM is about managing the rights of both sides, the consumer and the creator, not simply restricting the use of the product.

          That’s not true. The only thing DRM encumberment can do is attempt to restrict what can be done with a file. As such, any trivially removable DRM (and most are) only serves to affect honest and legitimate owners, since copyrighted content is typically stripped of DRM before it is uploaded and distributed.

          Modern DRM doesn’t allow infinite re-downloads; the vendor does (or doesn’t). This isn’t different from legacy systems except in recordkeeping by the vendor. You know what else allows infinite re-downloads? DRM-free files.

          DRM also interferes with accessibility software, first sale rights, lending (which is also legal), and all kinds of other fair use rights which have nothing to do with private, personal use and not copying.

          That DRM restrictions have become more palatable due to market forces doesn’t mean that everything’s okay, or that DRM is enabling anything at all over non-encumbered files. Digital Restrictions Management remains a more accurate term.

  3. Watermarking is a method of identification, not a restriction of use. In principle, it’s no different from, say, a book signed by the author. The signature turns a generic fungible item into a unique item.

    Trying to use it as a form of DRM has problems. Generally, an ebook license would prohibit the buyer from making copies and giving them away. But for most people, computers are, if not fungible, then commodity items. You download a bunch of books to your PC or phone, you replace the computer, you download all the books again. Meanwhile, the first downloads are still on the old computer as it gets passed on to a new owner, who has no legal duty to honor your purchase contract. Or your kid, or your kid’s friends, browse around and copy anything that looks like trading material on a warez site or bittorrent.

    The question is, “what are the limits of ‘due diligence’ with regard to ebooks? Disconnecting from the internet, encrypting everything, and putting the computer in a locked room are probably excessive.

    • I find deleting and doing a disk defrag makes things harder to recover. 😉

      The problem with watermarking is if you don’t have the whole chain of ownership it’s worthless.

      I could watermark something and sell/give it to you. If I then saw it on the internet the watermark would tell me that it was the copy you had.

      What makes it worthless is any break in that chain. If I’m selling an ebook on Amazon they’ll all have the same watermark – never mind that Amazon isn’t going to tell me who bought them.

      I think Baen had the right idea, you can’t stop copying, so just sell cheaply enough that it’s not worth it to the ‘pirates’ …


      You may copy and share the files on this CD, please do not sell them.

  4. DRM is an example of technology gone awry. The underlying issue is that both authors and readers would like digital property to act like physical property. Both parties want digital ownership to be the equivalent of physical ownership and it is not.

    Readers want to be able to treat a digital book like a physical book; they want to take it anywhere they want, they want to be able to sell it if they feel like it, rent it out, give it away, use it prop up a broken davenport, even use it for toilet paper. It’s theirs and they want to do whatever is possible to be done with the physical object they purchased.

    Authors and publishers (often now the same entity) have different interests. They don’t mind if a book is used to patch a hole in the insulation, but they want to reserve the right to profit from their work. They want to control the reproduction of the work in order to get their fair recompense for creating the work.

    Digital objects can be copied and distributed with ease. A single digital file can be copied a million times and shipped to every point on the globe by almost anyone at a cost measured in pennies. Unlike a physical book that must be manufactured and shipped via an infrastructure that is costly to create and maintain.

    DRM is a failed attempt to make digital objects behave like physical objects. Watermarking is another such effort. These efforts are bound to fail because digital objects are fundamentally different from physical objects. Ownership is a concept that does not apply to digital objects. Creators of a digital objects do not own their creations like the creators of physical objects own their creations.

    Once an object is digitalized, the cows are out of the barn. If you want to own something the way you own physical object, don’t create a digital object. So far, I haven’t seen that an effort to round up digital cows wandering in the pasture that is worth bothering with.

    I don’t know where this will end up. I have a sneaking feeling the disruption has only begun and there will be many more plays yet to be seen.

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