New DRM Changes Text of eBooks to Catch Pirates


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.

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If I were an author, I would be furious to discover that my publisher was inserting typographical "errors" into my work, or worse, paraphrasing or changing words. As a reader, I buy ebooks because I find them a convenient format. If there is a significant possibility that etexts are not reliably the same work as the print edition, I will not purchase the e-edition. I hope that if any publishers implement this model (particularly for creative writing -- a textbook or manual may be a different issue), they will include a note to the reader in any ebook that has been changed this way. This could be a major block on the use of ebooks in the classroom -- can you imagine a discussion which first has to acknowledge that one person may have a variant reading of one line of poetry, even when everyone thought they were buying the same anthology?

Louis Becker

The funny thing is that it's actually not that hard to insert unique features into a given text copy that don't change the text in any substantial way. Extra spaces at the end of paragraphs, or extra zero-width spaces between words, for instance, can encode a unique serial number multiple times in a reasonably lengthy text, and generally don't change meaning or look of a text. The spaces can be removed, of course, but so can other watermarks.

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