Major Publishers and Bookstores are staring to forgo Adobe DRM and instead embrace Digital Watermarking technology. They are doing this because it is easier for the customer to be able to load the eBooks they purchase onto their e-Reader, smartphone or tablet. Right now Watermarking is big in Europe and being the de’facto standard in the publishing arena, but now North Americans are starting to realize the potential.
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 eBook (such as an email address) or an ID number that the distributor can use to look up the user or transaction in a database and is otherwise meaningless.
There are a few major players in the Watermarking arena that have gained the most traction from publishers and have been adopted by some fairly big companies. The Dutch firm Booxtream has been providing social DRM since 2011 to its roster of Dutch bookstores and has recently spread their wings globally. One of their biggest clients is Pottermore. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter focused online community and ebookstore. They have been using the technology since the service first launched in 2012.
HarperColllins and ebook distributor LibreDigital decided to embrace a competitor; Guardian Watermarking for Publishing from Digimarc. It is a fairly new anti-piracy technology that not only embeds an invisible watermark into eBooks, but it also crawls the web 24×7 searching for watermarked content. When a watermark is detected, Digimarc provides the unique identifier to the publisher to match against its own transaction records. Digimarc Guardian Watermarks do not contain any personal or user information; the Digimarc Watermarks contain only anonymous digital IDs.
One of the ways publishers safeguard their watermarking technology is to turn towards companies that specialize in anti-piracy measures. eBoekhuis is based in the Netherlands and has developed their own system of watermarking. Recently they signed an agreement with fellow countrymen BRIEN, to protect their assets from file sharing and Torrent websites. Any bookstore that sells eBooks with their proprietary system is mandated to share previously-private customer data directly with copyright holders and BREIN. This basically gives BREIN a ton of power to be able to go directly after eBook pirates. This sounds valid, I realize you have to protect your clients from unlawful activity, but things took a very dark twist. “We got a new contract that states that we must directly give information about the buyer if some anti-piracy agency (BREIN) finds an ebook file online,” said Kurt Roeckx, who operates the Dutch ebook store E-webshops. “We must keep the information about the buyer for minimum of 2 years and maximum of 5 years. And if we don’t sign the contract we won’t be allowed to sell e-books with watermark anymore.”
Some companies actually take watermarking technology too far and are making their readers feel like criminals. Verso Books recently introduced their bookstore in March 2014 and when customers buy a book their name and email address are blasted on the cover art. Not only that but the info is also on the title page, copyright page, TOC, bibliography, forward, and e very second page of the eBook. One user stated “Personally, I felt like I was constantly being sent a stalker’s note saying, “I know where you live.” It put me off reading the books entirely.”
Watermarking’s greatest shortcoming (from a publisher’s perspective; a boon for the reader) is that it does nothing to protect against small-time file-sharing among friends. Though book lending is a staple of the traditional reading experience, in the digital sphere, it terrifies publishers. Ursula Mackenzie, Little, Brown and Company chief executive and president of the Publishers Association recently stated: “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 favor of DRM because it inhibits file-sharing between the mainstream readers who are so valuable to us and our authors.”
Watermarking or social DRM is very popular in Europe, with most publishers and digital bookstores choosing this technology. Mainstream companies such as DriveThru, Tor, Baen and bokus all sell their content in this fashion. In the Netherlands 65% of all publishers have adopted it and Digimark concluded Fifty-five magazine titles were read, contributing to a 300% increase in sales in 2013.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and Verge.