New E-Book DRM Technology SiDiM Is Kind of Terrifying

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As e-books become more prevalent, it stands to reason that the issue of e-book pirating would become more prevalent as well. To that end, researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute are working on a new ebook DRM (digital rights management) system called SiDiM, which would change specific words in given texts in order to link the pirated files to their original owners. Obviously, neither authors nor readers are particularly pleased with this development.

First, of course, there’s the fact that this technology would change the prose, giving every e-book reader a slightly different text. As Paidcontent reported, this could “include changing wordings like “invisible” to “not visible” and “unhealthy” to “not healthy.” Other examples included sentences in which the order of words was changed, or in which hyphens were added to words.” This may sound like no big deal, but actually it is – after all, authors fight for hours with their editors over commas, nitpick their sentences, and generally have strong feelings about the order of the words in their sentences. Plus, this would be a computer making changes, not a human, which could lead to some silly (and distracting, and potentially embarrassing) mistakes. Then there’s another question: if each reader is identified by a specific text change, what happens when millions of people buy an e-book? How creative can the system get? Will late buyers notice stranger and stranger changes, the system having run out of unobtrusive ways to “tag” the text? Will it be one word, or a pattern of words that are altered? Regardless, the underlying suggestion here is that what’s important to e-booksellers is the copyright (read: the dollars), as opposed to the book itself. When you have to change the text, even a little bit, in order to protect it, doesn’t that undermine the very thing that you’re supposedly protecting?

Even if you think it’s snobbish to insist that every word in an author’s text is sacrosanct (well, every word in certain authors’ texts, anyway), there’s something deeply troubling about this DRM software, especially considering the recent controversy over the NSA regulations – and, it should be noted, the resultant sales of 1984. As author Nick Harkaway points out in the Guardian , SiDiM would amount to “making the text spy on the reader,” something he finds abhorrent. On that note, he says, “the criminalization of the reader is probably not the best model for the publishing industry generally, and it creates an adversarial relationship which increases the likelihood of copyright infringements.”

Indeed, the project seems invasive, and it seems Big Brother-y, and it seems likely to create consumers not interested in feeding the system. It also leaves us open for a world in which there is no official version of any specific text, only the personalized-by-computer versions delivered to our handheld devices. Perhaps this is a bit paranoid, but I can’t help wondering whether this technology could be used for censorship – a supposedly randomized program that replaces certain words with other ones, the consumer none the wiser.

The bottom line is that there are better ways to watermark e-books. I can’t claim to know much about the technological possibilities, but it must be feasible to attach a digital tag that doesn’t impede the reading experience or undercut the product. After all, e-book retailers, you wouldn’t want to give readers a reason to go running back to paper books, now would you?