Skip to main content

New DRM Promises to Ruin a Good eBook in the Name of Protecting It

338491507_857731b812[1]Do you like to read authors that write with a subtle mastery of the English language? Then you’re probably going to hate this new idea.

The Fraunhofer Institute, a German research firm with the motto "we forge the future", is now working on a new type of digital watermark DRM. They want to move beyond the existing techniques of adding digital watermarks to the metadata and extraneous text of an ebook and instead embed identifying details inside the body of the ebook.

In short, this new DRM (SiDiM, or "Sichere Dokumente durch individuelle Markierung") would make changes to the story as written by the author with the intention of changing each customer’s copy in a unique way. The goal would be to find identifiers so that a copy could be traced back to the original buyer.

On a technical level it is an interesting idea, and one that isn’t exactly new. This kind of security has been used on a small scale (for example) when firms wanted to track who was leaking documents. I do not know that it has ever been used on a large commercial scale before, however.

I read about this over at, and was lucky to find that they had linked to a example sheet from Fraunhofer. The example sheet was in German, of course, but the possible changes were presented in A/B pairs and that made it easy to see the differences. Possible changes could include inserting extraneous returns, reordering items in a list, and altering the negation element used in the story (inconsistent to not consistent, etc).

I don’t know about you but I think this is a terrible idea. SiDiM is nothing less than security at the expense of art, and I do believe that the solution is worse than the problem.

Never mind that this would completely screw up the art of literary analysis; it could also drastically and randomly change the reading experience.

I don’t claim to be a terribly gifted writer but I do know that a change as subtle as reordering a list can change the intended emphasis of that list or the cadence of a sentence; it can lead a reader to think the author is implying something different. Splitting up a paragraph so the first or last sentence stands alone can emphasize that sentence in a way the author did not intend.

And as for negation, I have the strong suspicion that whoever came up with this idea doesn’t have a subtle enough grasp of the language to know that words like inconsistent, unarmed, and invisible have subtly different meanings from not consistent, not armed, and not visible, respectively.

Fortunately this DRM is still in the developmental stages. There is a consortium that is working on the design, implementation and validation, of the SiDiM architecture. Curiously enough, one member of the consortium is a law firm specializing in IP. It’s not clear what that firm contributes; perhaps the developers had ethical objections to testing on rats.

I don’t have any info on when this DRM might see widespread use, but if the early response is any indication I doubt that we will need to worry. This story might not have gotten a lot of coverage in English but it has been heavily debated on German digital publishing blogs.

Few book lovers liked the idea, with many raising the same objections I have raised in this post. I hope that will be enough to prevent very many publishers and ebookstores from adopting SiDiM.


image by bensmawfield

Similar Articles


Puzzled June 13, 2013 um 5:38 pm

Me not fantasy may elevate an challenge to this structure of Finger Claim Administration.

The Rodent June 13, 2013 um 7:18 pm

Why waste energy trying to be sneaky about the changes? They should just introduce random-looking typos all over the book at the point of sale and log the pattern. When readers write to authors/publishers and report loads of stupid-ass typos they wouldn’t have missed if they had hired a proof-reader, authors/publishers can spend half of their free time matching up readers with typo patterns to make sure the readers are authorized to be reading that copy of the book; and the other half of their free time telling everyone how cool the DRM scheme is because it might someday catch someone reading something they shouldn’t be. STASI would have loved this, I’m sure.

William Ockham June 13, 2013 um 8:50 pm

The proposed solution is really overkill if you are concerned about ebooks only. It sounds more like it is designed for print. There’s a better way for ebooks. And when I say better, I just mean more subtle. I am NOT proposing the following as a good idea. DRM is mostly stupid. But if you wanted to be really clever, here’s what you would do. Take the font that is used for the body of the text. Copy the full stop glyph (the ".") from the Unicode 002E to the full width full stop (Unicode FF0E). Generate a unique identifier for this copy of the ebook. Encode the binary value of the id in the dots used for punctuation in the ebook.

With this approach, you have made no visual or semantic change to the content, but you have what is, in effect, a digital signature for each copy of the ebook.

The Rodent June 14, 2013 um 12:10 pm

That would only work if the ebook has a font inside it. (Most ebooks don’t have fonts in them — they’re just HTML and some glue. The fonts are usually on the device.) But if the book has a font embedded in it, the user could open the ebook file and strip the font.

William Ockham June 14, 2013 um 5:28 pm

No, they would have to change the unicode characters to remove the identifiers. And technically, this works even without an embedded font. It’s just that most fonts don’t have a glyph for the full-width full stop. If they strip the font they will likely get a file with random-seeming "missing character glyphs".

With a good Unicode-aware editor it would easy to replace the full-width full stops with the normal full stop, but anyone with one of those will also be able to remove other DRM.

Eping Wang June 20, 2013 um 2:29 am

If some one write a simple tool just replace all full width stop with normal stop, and release as a free tool, then how to protect?
Only an irreversible replace can not be unmade.

Iola June 16, 2013 um 4:51 pm

This must be possible.

With one of the book blogging programmes I am a member of, every time I download an ebook, it has my name and email address watermarked on the header page of each chapter. We all buy our ebooks using an email address, so how hard would this be to embed?

Eping Wang June 20, 2013 um 2:14 am

It’s easy to embed, also easy to strip.
Those info can be easily removed by those pirates or a program.

Vince June 14, 2013 um 12:47 am

Would DRM that changes the text of a work – especially if it ended up changing the meaning of a sentence, paragraph or larger unit (passage, chapter) – result in violating the copyright on the original work? If it does, I foresee a short future for the DRM. Or each individual DRM’d copy of the original work might need its own copyright.

Jeff Power June 14, 2013 um 8:16 am

That right there is one of the reasons a law firm specializing in IP would be involved.

Manmeet June 14, 2013 um 8:07 am

Excellent suggestion William Ockham.

Your solution is very elegant while the solution by Fraunhofer Institute is stupid at so many levels.

Name (required) June 14, 2013 um 3:28 pm

Just use html formatting and make some tags uppercase and some lowercase. You can also insert tags like (making a space bold) randomly in the book. Most of e-book formats are just html in a thin wrapper. You do not have to mess with the words itself.
Also the way the book is split internaly into html chunks and re-arranging the order of the elements in the heading of individual

It is going to work wonderfully, until somebody learns that you are using this kind of DRM and develops a plugin for Calibre to nuke the code and re-arrange the html.

You can also put steanoghraphic marks into the cover image. There are quite a few types of digital watermark for images.

I have "invented" the above in a couple of minutes. I am pretty sure that a determined IP … aehm … "experts" should be able to come with something even better and not with the altering of the text of the book.

As for making changes in the text, all you need is several copies of the book and a "goode olde" diff utility.

William Ockham June 14, 2013 um 5:49 pm

Mixing upper and lower case tags isn’t technically valid for Epub 2.

Eping Wang June 20, 2013 um 2:39 am

a program can easily unified the case to upper or lower or change to another mixed formation.
But I think ePub commitee can and sould do something changing some details of the format to give DRM a way.

Name June 15, 2013 um 1:59 pm

I don’t understand what good a watermark is in the first place. Consumer computers overarchingly lack the necessary configuration to store their data in a secure manner. Some bad guy could simply steal innocent Joe Average’s watermarked files and spread them on the Internet. How can one fail to see that this is virtually bound to happen?

auntlee June 17, 2013 um 10:14 am

Or you could ignore the entire issue and just read public domain e-books:

NickBangO June 17, 2013 um 10:40 am

A few remarks :

— in some countries, if authors are not asked whether the publisher or distributor or vendor can use this "watermark" then their moral rights are violated, which is really really wrong in the eyes of the Law (don’t know if it’s the same in the US) ;

— what about ISBNs and the way they work. Multiple alterations mean the content is modified significantly. So will each ebook using SiDiM be attributed a different ISBN?

— this company has succeeded in securing a public funding for this particular project. YES, the German state itself has put money into it! Living in Europe, I quite know that Germany doesn’t give a damn about its culture but I guess this is the absolute proof it is actually true. Screwing literature in the name of a worthless company… That would better have been an episode of doctor who. Really.

— the European Union wants interoperability for readers, Germany funds a DRM that jeopardize the moral right of authors. O the irony!

Tipos de DRM: DRM social o blando versus DRM duro January 26, 2015 um 3:19 pm

[…] y los DRM, Fraunhofer-Institut, Librería Santa Fe, Observatori de l’edició digital, SeeBook, The digital reader, Universo […]

Write a Comment