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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

Copyfight

« Two Things About Past Stories | Main | Wait! No! Stop Hitting Us! »

June 19, 2013

New E-Book DRM Commits Piracy to ?Stop? Piracy

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

We're all familiar with those who claim to be fighting illegal copying doing illegal things in the name of their fight. Going back at least as far as the Sony rootkit up to the present day when Prenda apparently placed porn onto torrents itself we know that people who claim they're fighting copying often do wrong.

Now comes SiDi, a technology that claims to be fighting copying but in fact is creating illegal works. Here's the deal: an e-book with SiDi (and please help me resist making jokes about inSiDious here) has been subtly changed. Words are replaced with equivalents, creating a kind of "watermark" for the e-book that renders it different from the original. If that watermarked version later finds its way out into the wild you know what the original source was. So far so good - in fact, Margaret Thatcher once used a similar technique to figure out who in her cabinet was leaking memos to the press.

However, unlike Ms. Thatcher, SiDi doesn't own the works it's distorting. In fact, what it is doing is creating a derivative work, and passing that derivative off as the original. Now it may not make a huge difference if you read a work where the author's word "unhealthy" is replaced by SiDi's "not healthy" but the law clearly gives the copyright holder the power to determine what changes are and are not permissible. Changes, even minor ones, can create a derivative work. And if you create an unauthorized derivative work, then you've committed a copyright violation.

Worse, if you create a derivative work and pass it off as the work of the original author, you've committed a fraud. What may seem to you or me to be a trivial change may in fact upset an author who has gone to significant trouble to shape the wording of, say, a particular character's dialog. That dialog helps the reader build a mental picture of the character, and the wording of the story sets the pace and flow - all of which we expect the author to control. If you've never watched an author and a copyeditor fight over seemingly trivial wording changes then this may not strike you as a big deal but I have, and trust me it matters. Authors care about the fine details of their craft and having some piece of software go in and arbitrarily change those fine details is a violation of both the spirit and the letter of almost every publishing contract I've seen.

In her column, Susan Lulgjuraj asks the question of whether we've gotten to the point where e-book copying is so widespread that we need yet another form of DRM to combat it. That presumes that this form of DRM will be any more effective than all the other forms, which is to say not at all. And it misses the most crucial question, which is why are we even contemplating something this stupid?

(Image above of Bến Tre - bonus points to anyone who can guess the relationship of that image to this story, without searching first.)

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