Digital watermarking makes a comeback

Digital watermarking first made its debut some years ago, when academic publishers were looking for alternatives to those conventional DRM technologies that were particularly frustrating for academic e-book users, who were more likely to want to dip in and out of different sections in a book than, say, someone reading the pages of a fiction title consecutively for pleasure.  Many publishers went on to address this problem by maintaining DRM only on aggregators’ websites, while relaxing it when titles were accessed on the publisher’s own platform.  Digital watermarking therefore became less significant.

Now it seems to have made a comeback.  Writing in The Good eReader, Mike Kozlowski reassesses the importance of new-generation digital watermarking. 

Here is a summary of Kozlowski’s article:

Major publishers and booksellers are staring to abandon Adobe DRM and instead embrace digital watermarking technology. They are doing this because it makes it easier for the customer to upload the e-books he or she purchases to more than one device.

A watermark, or ‘social DRM’, is imperceptible to the average book reader, because the underlying technology is invisible to the naked eye. The way it handles data can take two distinctive forms: personal information about the user who purchased the e-book (such as capturing an e-mail address) or an ID number that the distributor can use to look up the user or transaction in a database.

One of the ways publishers safeguard their watermarking technology is to turn towards companies that specialise in anti-piracy measures. eBoekhuis, based in the Netherlands, has developed its own system of watermarking. Recently it signed an agreement with BREIN, also a Dutch company, to protect its assets from file-sharing and Torrent websites. Any bookstore that sells e-books with this proprietary system is mandated to share what was previously private customer data directly with copyright holders and BREIN.  (There are downsides to this arrangement, which the full article explains more fully.)

Watermarking’s greatest shortcoming from the publisher’s perspective is that it does nothing to protect against small-time file-sharing among friends.   Ursula Mackenzie, CEO of Little, Brown, has said: “We are fully aware that DRM does not inhibit determined pirates or even those who are sufficiently sophisticated to download DRM removal software. The central point is that we are in favour of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”

Watermarking is rapidly increasing in popularity in Europe. In the Netherlands 65% of all publishers are said to have adopted it.

For the full article, click here.