Social DRM: Watermarking and Ex-Libris

by Hadrien

The publishing industry is quickly embracing digital publishing and is basically facing the same issues that the music industry had a few years ago.  DRM specifically, is a very complicated issue: publishers are afraid that without them, file sharing will ruin their business, but they should be equally afraid of how DRM can be anti-consumer and limit the adoption of e-books.

While I can understand the situation of the publishers, I do believe that the publisher-reader/customer relationship should be built on trust, rather than digital locks and artificial scarcity. One of the most common answer to this problem is what is commonly called “social DRM”. I see 2 specific components to social DRM:

  1. a technical component to identify the customer
  2. a social component to customize the media

The technical component is a digital watermark, that can link an e-book to a specific customer. Therefore, if an e-book is redistributed through file sharing applications, it should be possible to identify who originally distributed the book. Of course, none of these digital watermarks are perfectly secure, and some of the customers will probably get rid of the watermark. Normal DRM suffer from the same problem: LIT is currently a very popular format among the e-book community for this specific reason.

But the most important aspect isn’t this digital identifier embedded in the e-books: it’s the social component, and this is where you build a relation of trust. A watermark should be perceptible: it is even more important to tell your customer that you created specifically this file for them, than to track them if they made some sort of copyright infringement. Moreover, this component of the social DRM experience should be customizable and fun. To identify a customer, you need some sort of ID: it could be something standard such as an OpenID, or specific to a company such as the new Adobe ID system. We could imagine a service similar to what gravatar does for avatar, where customers could link to their ID a customized bookplate (ex-libris) that would appear on the second page of their e-books. This would appeal to collectors, and make the experience of tagging your book with your ID much more pleasant overall.

In a social DRM world, while we wouldn’t need any sort of gatekeeper to control the access to our content anymore, we would still need services that can certify that an ID is valid and a technology capable of identifying e-books that are illegally downloaded. This would ensure that even current DRM providers wouldn’t go out of business: they would get in competition with each other in an open market where the best user experience and safest watermark would win.