What if there were a way to crowdfund the fight against peer-to-peer copyright infringement, while getting rid of DRM restrictions that prevent you from using the reader app you prefer? That’s the goal behind new social DRM platform Custos for eBooks, which integrates Bitcoin bounties with digital watermarking to reward people for reporting pirate ebook sightings. But how well would such a mechanism actually work in practice?
Over the last few days I’ve been corresponding with Ryan Morison, the Director of digital publishing company Erudition Digital Ltd. Erudition is the first company to make use of the platform, on its music imprint Informance. Morison passed along the Custos press release, which explains:
Custos for eBooks differs from traditional “hard DRM” by embedding imperceptible Bitcoin bounties in widely used, open file formats rather than requiring the use of proprietary formats and viewing applications. These bounties can be claimed instantly from anywhere in the world by a network of “bounty hunters” using a free extraction tool.
“By using Bitcoin bounties, anyone can be a bounty hunter. This not only means that we can detect piracy faster, and deeper in the dark web, but it also sows distrust within tight-knit piracy communities, effectively turning pirates on each other”, says Fred Lutz, COO of Custos. It also serves as a valuable complement to “soft DRM” approaches such as social DRM by providing a more robust means of monitoring and detecting infringement.
The idea is that, when someone notices a pirated Custos ebook floating around, they run it through the extraction tool. They get rewarded with a Bitcoin bounty for noticing it, while the publisher gets notified where the pirated book showed up, and what customer originally bought it. The amount of the reward is never mentioned, but presumably that would be up to the publisher or ebookstore in question. They would have to figure out what amount would be high enough to give would-be piracy-hunters incentive to hunt, but low enough not to break the bank.
It seems unlikely this watermarking scheme would lead to actual prosecution of the purchaser for uploading the book—after all, the publisher would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the purchaser is also the one who uploaded it, and that someone else didn’t steal it from their computer or fiddle with the watermark along the way. Even a civil lawsuit seems unlikely, as the poor return on the investment of legal fees for the suit makes it hardly worthwhile suing someone over uploading an ebook or two. (These days you only tend to see that sort of thing in high-profile cases where a lot of money is involved, such as when Oscars screeners leak.)
On the other hand, there’s nothing preventing ebook stores from using this as a way to see what customers they should blacklist as piracy risks. And while at first that does seem like a fair and reasonable response to someone breaking the user agreement by uploading content they buy to a public site, it does run into the same issue as prosecution: how can you tell someone didn’t simply hack into the computer of the customer, download all their files, and reupload them somewhere else?
If you’ve been blacklisted by an ebook store, how do you appeal? Presumably, that would be left up to the store, but there’s no reason to expect they’ll necessarily make that easy. We’ve all heard stories of customers who’ve lost their Amazon accounts for one reason or another, and the difficulties they’ve had in getting them reinstated. And to turn that around, if you’re the store, how do you decide whether the customer is being honest or lying through their teeth?
But those are all things the stores would need to worry about, and they’ll have incentive to strike a good balance—if they err too much on the side of caution, the bad publicity could cost them potential customers. We’ll just have to see how well that situation shakes out when we get there.
I’ve already covered publishers’ claims that searching the Internet for copyright infringement is one of the more expensive aspects of digital rights management. If this scheme could provide sufficient incentive to interest Joe Average User in carrying some of the load, it could very well save the publishers enough money to pay for itself. (And, perhaps, to pay higher royalties to authors.)
Of course, providing that incentive isn’t just a matter of setting a decent reward for turning in a pirated copy—it would also require enough ebook stores to be using the scheme that sufficient quantities of the pirated works out there would pay such bounties. It’s early days for the scheme yet, so it’s unclear how widely or quickly it will spread, but it seems to me that they would need to land some really big ebookstores (like, say, Amazon) to build those numbers fast enough. But I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
There’s also the question of how effective Custos will be at deterring piracy. I think that the most dedicated pirates are going to be fairly tech-savvy people, and if they know a book is watermarked to lead back to them, they probably wouldn’t upload it. Hence, the only people who’d get caught would be those who didn’t realize their ebooks were watermarked. I don’t know how many of those there would be, though I’m sure there would be some. But the hard-core pirates will try to figure out some way to strip off the watermarking instead.
Since Custos-protected ebooks would not carry “traditional” DRM, so that they could be read by any ereader application, they could also be edited and manipulated—converted via Calibre, copied, pasted, and so on. Would the watermarks stay in place when that happens? I asked Morison about that, and he replied:
The Bitcoin bounty is embedded as a normal watermark, therefore this is more of the responsibility of the underlying watermarking solution that we are using. We have currently integrated with a few third-party systems and they take various measures to prevent this from happening (in some instances, they are even able to embed the watermark within the text of the eBook without it being visible therefore converting to another format won’t remove it).
I’m no technical expert, but I would think that if the watermark is detectible to the extraction tool, it would have to be detectible to other software tools as well—whether it’s “visible” to the reader or not. And couldn’t someone get rid of the watermarking simply by copying out the plain text and minimal formatting of the book into an entirely new ebook file, leaving behind anything that might contain hidden watermarking?
I recall that when iTunes music went DRM-free in 2009, switching over to watermarking buyers’ information into the music files, one of the first things that happened was the proliferation of apps and workaround tips to remove that watermarking in the name of “protecting customers’ privacy.” I would expect the same clever people who were able to come up with a means to strip regular DRM from DRM-locked ebooks would be able to figure out how to strip watermarking from Custos ebooks.
Morison said that Custos will be continually changing up its watermarking methods to make it risky for would-be pirate enablers to assume they got everything. So, effectively, if Custos catches on, it will be another (social) DRM arms race.
Which is not to say that it’s a bad idea. There’s no point letting the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough. We already know that present-day DRM is ineffective at preventing piracy; the pirates (and thousands of ordinary customers who just want ebooks they can keep) already casually crack DRM on ebooks they buy (or check out from a library) without giving a second thought to ethics or legality.
Even if Custos for eBooks should turn out to be no more effective at fighting piracy than restrictive DRM, but permits ordinary customers to use their ebooks how they want without having to crack them, that’s still a good thing. If publishers see Custos as an alternative to locking their books up with restrictive DRM that only hurts those customers who aren’t savvy enough to crack it, that’s also a good thing.
In any case, it seems unlikely most publishers will decide to dump DRM without having some alternative available. If Custos can provide that alternative, and offer a way for customers to read and convert ebooks while satisfying publishers that their works are protected, then I’m all for it. I hope that Custos or something like it proliferates widely so customers have an alternative to cracking DRM if they want to make full use of the ebooks they buy.