I still loathe DRM just as much as ever, at least in commercial books that I’ve supposedly bought for keeps.

For library books? OK. But I want to be able to read my own books on my devices of choice, and I endlessly despise retailer-related lock-in, which also may interfere with access to text to speech and other amenities.

At the same time I understand the anxieties that large publishers feel about piracy of bestsellers.

Enter watermarking, sometimes known as social DRM even if the latter term is a little misleading. Publishers, distributors or retailers insert unique identifiers into copies of books to make it easier to track down the sources of pirated volumes. The identifiers may or may not be visible to readers.

Why new EU regs will be a plus for watermarked books

This is different from traditional encryption-based DRM restricting access. Simply put, watermarking is a good compromise between the needs of book buyers and content providers. And on Friday, when the European Union starts enforcing its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations, watermarking will be a still-better option. Users will be more confident than before that content providers will respect their privacy.

Commissioned by the owners of BooXtream, a major provider of watermarking technology, a new white paper from veteran publishing consultant Bill Rosenblatt offers advice for content providers, beyond the obvious need to consult with a lawyer:

The GDPR forbids organizations from processing personal information unless there is a lawful basis to do so under the regulation. One such basis is that the subject of the personal information has given consent to the processing organization for a specific purpose; there are other possible lawful bases that may or may not apply. A safe course of action for an e-book distributor that uses watermarks that incorporate personal data is to explain to the user the purpose and use of personal information and obtain advance consent for this use.

The GDPR also imposes requirements on security of storage of personal information, data breach responses, and other requirements…

Readable in PDF or ePub 3, Rosenblatt’s paper is free and well worth downloading even if his sponsor is hardly disinterested. It is not a puff job. He simply lays out the facts about watermarking vs. traditional DRM.

Among other things, he notes that “DRM-stripped files do not contain any evidence of where they came from or who obtained them in the first place. Watermarks may have value as evidence in copyright infringement litigation. If a hacker strips a watermark, the ambiguity over whether a watermark still remains creates the possibility that the file contains evidence that can lead to the original owner of the file and can be produced in litigation.”

Using different watermarking schemes on the same book, content providers can make life riskier for pirates.

This is not a panacea—watermarking won’t work without copyright law enforcement, and good Web crawling to spot pirated books. But all in all, watermarking is a winner compared to traditional DRM.

EU countries ahead of U.S. in watermarking use

Some U.S. publishers have already caught on to the possibilities of watermarking.  O’Reilly, for example, has used it for years. But the real action is outside the U.S. The U.K.-based Pottermore, distributing the Harry Potter series, relies on watermarking to help protect one of the planet’s most valuable literacy franchises. In the white paper, Rosenbaltt writes:

In Germany, several publishers including Random House, Holtzbrinck, and Bonnier abandoned DRM in favor of watermarking.

Over half (55%) of e-books sold in Italy use watermarking instead of DRM.

Almost all of the e-books sold in the Netherlands are watermarked.

In Sweden, 98% of the e-books distributed by eLib, the country’s biggest e-book distributor, are watermarked.

Watermarking is used in the vast majority of e-books in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Slovakia, and Austria.

Let’s hope that U.S. publishers and retailers will catch up. Several obstacles loom. For example, we know that some large U.S. house regard ebooks simply as a necessary evil, and along with high prices, DRM is a way to discourage the growth of ebooks to protect investments in warehouses and other paper-related infrastructure. Amazon’s DRM is less of a hassle for users than the DRM from some rivals. But then Amazon’s DRM locks users into the Kindle world (even though the company does not require DRM for ebooks). May Amazon change! That, in turn, will require more enlightenment from publishers, as well as from writers and literacy agents, so many of whom are oblivious to the damage that traditional DRM does to sales. Under contract law, the content providers can require DRM. Old habits die hard.

Good for everyone: Hello, Amazon, Kobo and OverDrive?

But in the end, I’m convinced that the large-scale replacement of DRM  by watermarking will be good for everyone. Even if DRM fades away or grows less important, Amazon will still be the industry leader as users flock to its giant e-bookstore for other reasons, such as the abundance of reviews. Meanwhile ebook sales will increase for Amazon and everyone else with the technology  easier to use. I know. Publishers want to protect their paper-related investments, but especially in this multimedia age, books of all kinds are under siege. With ebooks, any cellphone or tablet user, not just a buyer of a dedicated ebook reader, can instantly choose from and enjoy millions of titles. Forget all this bunk about ebooks being dead. What’s really happening is that overpriced books from traditional publishers can’t compete with less expensive titles from smaller houses and self publishers. Library ebook user is booming.

If I controlled Kobo and OverDrive, its sister company—the Rakuten conglomerate owns both—I would be especially eager to embrace watermarking before Amazon caught on in a major way. I would lean really really hard on large publishers to experiment with watermarked books for distribution by Kobo and display on its devices. Offer carrots such as better promotion of watermarked titles. As for OverDrive, the library ebook company, it could use watermarking as a way to lure library patrons into buying the books they borrowed. The fact that the patrons were already registered with OverDrive and local libraries would make pirated copies more traceable than ever. So the technology would be a better bet than ever for publishers.

I could also mention the possibilities of watermarking for Barnes & Noble as one way to help keep the ebook operation, and the company in general, afloat. But at this point I’m wondering if anything can rescue B&N.

About the image, from the white paper: It “shows the copyright page of a Harry Potter EPUB file purchased from Pottermore, the e-book retailer for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter titles; it contains a readable yet obfuscated user ID and the date of purchase.”