Thoughts on Digital Watermarking

The clamour among authors and publishers for a mechanism that prevents ebooks from being pirated (illegally downloaded, copied and shared), particularly for DRM (Digital Rights Management, an umbrella term for technologies that prevent ‘piracy’), hasn’t quite disappeared. Before we get into a discussion around piracy and DRM, let us examine the types of customers that prompt this clamour for DRM technology.

There’s:
A. The customer who will only download free stuff, whether books or software
B. The customer who will download free books because he/she cannot afford to pay for a legal copy
C. The customer who will accidentally land upon a pirated book and download it because he’s found it for free, and is perhaps never going to read it anyway.

If you consider these three options, you have lost a sale only in case A. In cases B and C, they were never your customers anyway, rather, they would not pay for your book in any case.

Spending on DRM to prevent customer A seems a colossal waste of money. And time.

The case for DRM is widely considered a weak one: to begin with, it is expensive to implement and can easily be tampered with. In addition, in the absence of an industry-wide DRM standard, different platforms have adopted different locking mechanisms thus making it difficult for retailers and buyers to purchase solutions that are compatible across platforms without bearing a cost in each case. Moreover, we are of the opinion that e-books should be shared, much like printed books are, and that artificial barriers that prevent what is essentially a basic human instinct to share, must be avoided. DRM, being what it is, will only lead to a backlash from consumers by turning away buyers who legitimately purchase a book are seeking a good reading experience.

On the other hand there is the matter of indiscriminate pirating that is a legitimate concern of many authors. If books are simply distributed over the Internet, free of cost, surely it must impact sales and, consequently, rob authors of their royalties. Unfortunately, there is no study that proves that DRM actually prevents piracy. Moreover, these days a printed book can be easily scanned, then subjected to OCR software, thus making it easily available for sharing. Countering piracy therefore needs a different approach. But, as seen above, it does not make economic sense to spend money countering piracy.

Many reports like this one make the distinction between piracy (where the file is let loose and anyone, even those unrelated to the originator, can lay hands on the book) with casual sharing (where the book is shared between people who know each other. DRM might prevent casual sharing, and, consequently, a sale that might happen because the person it is shared with might actually like the book and buy herself a copy. Publishers understand this and are moving one by one to make their books available DRM-free.

So what might be a good way to prevent unbridled file sharing? Making the book easily accessible might be a good way to start. Most often, it is not the price, it is the fact that books are simply not available, that forces buyers to look elsewhere for books. E-commerce platforms coupled with easy-to-obtain applications on smartphones (on which reading is quite popular(requires a subscription)) can make for a seamless purchase-and-read experience.

While it is still not a good idea to implement hard DRM to counter piracy, one option that is finding much favour (and one that we have adopted on our e-commerce platform, dogearsetc.com, for our books) is digital watermarking (or social DRM). Digital watermarking involves adding an image or some software code that identifies the original purchaser of the book. In case of rampant piracy, the source can thus be traced. Thus, while sharing is not limited or made cumbersome, due to the absence of DRM, publishers are still enabled with the tools needed to identify the customer who purchased the book (and who may have then turned generous and made the book available to all and sundry).

Digital watermarking is not provided on every platform and there are still platforms which offer a choice only between hard DRM and no DRM. Social DRM seems like the best compromise and it is our hunch that it won’t be too long before it is accepted widely.

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